Virginia Democrats pushed to expand voter access, but will Republicans move to make changes after election wins?

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Democrats made expanding voter access a top priority during their two-year reign over the Virginia General Assembly, utilizing their majority to revamp the state’s election rules.

The Democratic-controlled state legislature and Gov. Ralph Northam repealed the voter photo ID law, made ballot drop-off boxes permanent, opened up 45 days of no-excuse absentee voting, made Election Day a state holiday and enacted several other changes.

Virginia even passed its own voting rights act — a first in the South.

In the run-up to the Nov. 2 elections, Republicans vowed to undo the recent policy changes passed by Democrats. But fresh off their sweep of the elections, it’s unclear if Republicans will look to overhaul Virginia’s election laws.

Va. Republicans want voters to show photo ID at the polls

Voters cast their ballots under a giant mural at Robious Elementary school in Midlothian, Va., Tuesday Nov. 3, 2020. Poll workers said that traffic was slow due to all the early voting in the precinct. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

GOP candidates and state lawmakers placed an early emphasis on “election integrity” on the campaign trail, vowing to push legislative changes they said would restore the integrity of the election process. The main target for Republicans: reversing Virginia’s photo ID law.

“We are certainly going to do smart things like try to bring back common sense, in terms of voting rights, bring back common-sense measures like voter ID,” Del. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), the next speaker of the House of Delegates, said when outlining his caucus’s priorities during a virtual press conference on Nov. 4

Under Virginia’s current law, voters can show many forms of identification at the polls but are not required to have one with a photo. General registrars in Hanover, Henrico and Richmond told 8News they don’t have specific data on which form of ID voters provide, but that most show their driver’s licenses.

State Sen. David Suetterlein (R-Roanoke County) called the photo ID law “common sense policy” in an interview, pointing to what local election officials told 8News about the majority of voters providing their driver’s licenses.

But Republicans will split control of the General Assembly with Democrats during the 2022 legislative session, a reality that could keep the party’s goals out of reach. 

State Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) said the photo ID law creates another “unnecessary barrier” for voters, especially those who are older or have disabilities, in a state with a history of racial discrimination and voter suppression.

Due to that history, Virginia was one of nine states that had to get federal permission to make election changes under the Voting Rights Act. After nearly 50 years, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that the preclearance requirements were no longer necessary.

Led by two Black state lawmakers who said they were inspired by the struggles their families experienced, Sen. McClellan and Del. Marcia Price (D-Newport News), Virginia passed its own voting rights act this year. The new law didn’t get support from Republicans who said it would open election officials to unnecessary litigation.

McClellan, one of the sponsors of the Virginia Voting Rights Act, has spoken extensively about how her great-grandfather was subjected to literacy tests and had to find three white men to “vouch” for him before casting a ballot in Alabama and how her father was required to pay a poll tax to vote.

“I oppose any barrier for voters,” McClellan said in an interview. “At one point it was not a big deal to make people take literacy tests or pay poll taxes.”

Two seats: Democrats’ only line of defense in 2022

Senate majority leader Sen. Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax, top right, talks with fellow Senators during the Senate session at the Capitol Sunday March 8, 2020, in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

While Republican lawmakers have signaled they are focused on restoring Virginia’s photo ID law, the rest of the party’s agenda is still hazy.

The only Republican bill regarding election rules that has been filed for the 2022 session would require absentee ballots to be sorted and reported by precinct. Sen. Suetterlein, the bill’s sponsor, said he believes the legislation will get passed after a similar effort received bipartisan support in the Senate but failed to get through the House of Delegates.

One Republican lawmaker, state Sen. Amanda Chase (Chesterfield), said she will propose a slew of bills for the upcoming session aimed at reversing the voting laws Democrats have passed in Virginia.

A former gubernatorial candidate who billed herself as “Trump in heels” during her run, Chase has continued to repeat false claims that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen.” She has also accused Democrats of “cheating” ahead of the statewide elections, but has yet to provide proof.

Chase told 8News she plans to file bills to restore the photo ID law, eliminate ballot drop-off boxes, end the voter registration process through the DMV that makes it nearly automatic and stop same-day voter registration before it goes into effect next October.

She added she will also introduce legislation requiring Virginians to provide an excuse when voting absentee, but the proposed reversal would only be for those submitting a ballot through the mail.

Her focus on voting laws, Chase said, is meant to ensure the commonwealth has “the guardrails to make sure Virginia’s elections are above reproach and that every legal vote counts.” Chase said she is confident that her bills would get through the necessary committees and eventually pass the Senate.

“There’s no way that any of that passes the Senate,” Sen. McClellan said of Chase’s proposals.

Democrats’ only true line of defense is the party’s two-seat majority in the Virginia Senate, although any tie in the 40-member chamber during next month’s session will be broken by Republican Lieutenant Governor-elect Winsome Sears.

While many of the legislative changes that Democrats approved, like the voter ID law, got through along party lines, some had support from both sides of the aisle. For example, state Sen. Jill Vogel (R-Fauquier) was one of the patrons of the bill eliminating the need for an excuse to vote absentee.

Vogel did not respond to 8News’ multiple requests for an interview.

Va. Democrats credit surge in voter turnout to reforms

Early voters line up outside Chesterfield County’s general registrar’s office on Sept. 23, 2020. (Photo by 8News’ Dean Mirshahi)

More votes were cast in this year’s Virginia governor’s race than in any other gubernatorial election in the state’s history. Nearly 3.3 million of Virginia’s 5.9 million registered voters cast a ballot for governor, the highest turnout percentage the commonwealth has seen for a governor’s race since 1993.

Voter turnout was also high for the 2020 presidential election. With millions of voters taking advantage of the 45 days of no-excuse early voting amid a raging pandemic, 75% of Virginia’s registered voters ended up casting a ballot.

The turnout percentage was the highest for a presidential election in Virginia since 1992, when the commonwealth had nearly 3 million fewer registered voters.

State Democrats and advocacy groups have credited this recent surge in turnout to the voting reforms they passed in the last two years.

“When you make it easier for people to vote, they will come out to vote,” Del. Price, who introduced the House’s version of the voting rights act, said in an interview. Price said she believes it’s now on Republicans in power to continue helping more people have access to the polls.

The New Majority helped state Democrats craft the voting rights act. The advocacy group’s communications director, Debra Freeman, said making the voting process more convenient for people has led to the uptick in turnout, pointing to studies showing the dramatic turnaround Virginia has made with voter access since 2016.

Price, who said her grandparents had to pay poll taxes to vote, said the GOP’s rhetoric ahead of the 2020 election was “the writing was on the wall” that Republicans would seek to make changes to voting laws across the country.

Price didn’t want to discuss whether she believes Republicans would look to repeal the votings right act or any other law passed by Democrats, saying she couldn’t speculate on how lawmakers would vote. But she said after seeing Republican-controlled legislatures approve measures to tighten voting laws in their states, she’s proud of the work the legislature did in the last two years.

“If we don’t directly attack the root of whatever would cause someone to restrict voting rights, we are going to have another generation of people fighting,” Price said. “I would love to live in a world where nobody needs a voting rights act, but we don’t.”

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