While Georgia lawmakers were enacting what some would call a regressive voting law last month, Virginia was creating landmark voting measures.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam restored voting rights to ex-felons, overriding the state’s constitutional mandate that permanently disenfranchises citizens with past felony convictions. He also approved the Voting Rights Act of Virginia. Virginia is the first state in the country to enact its own version of a voting rights act that protects against voter suppression, bias, and intimidation.
The new law is a sea change for this former symbol of the Old South, and attempts to revive a key federal provision stripped away eight years ago from the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That 50-year-old provision required nine southern states to get federal approval before changing voting rules.
Virginia now requires local election officials to get public permission before changing voting rules. Voters or the attorney general can sue if they believe any change disproportionately affects voters of color. It also bans at-large voting if it dilutes the voting power of people of color.
“At a time when voting rights are under attack across the country, Virginia is expanding access to the ballot box, not restricting it,” Gov. Northam said in prepared remarks.
It seems Virginia has been moving steadily toward optimum voting access for the last dozen years.
“It’s very different politically from the old Virginia,” Emory University Political Science Professor Alan Abramowitz told Atlanta Civic Circle. “It was conservative. For a long time, African Americans were prevented from voting until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”
Even after that, Abramowitz said, Virginia was run by conservative Democrats (known as Dixiecrats) who pushed for small government and low taxes, and had a longstanding hostility toward civil rights. Those Dixiecrats eventually transitioned to conservative Republicans. In either case, segregation ruled.
Those days are rapidly fading in Virginia and Georgia would do well to take note.
“Georgia is changing as well but still years behind Virginia,” Abramowitz said.
An influx of more educated, progressive and nonwhite people has changed both states demographically in recent years. Like Northern Va., metro Atlanta has become a Democratic stronghold, Abramowitz said. But unlike Virginia which has a Democratic governor and legislature, Georgia remains firmly Republican. At least for now.
“The breakthrough was in 2020,” Abramowitz said. “The Democrats won the presidential election and two senate seats in Georgia. The Democrats made some gains in the legislature but the Republicans still have it pretty much locked up.”
Georgia’s future, however, could very well be determined by next year’s governor’s race and midterm elections.
“A lot will depend on what happens in the 2022 election,” Abramowitz said. “It’s not going to change unless we have a change in leadership. I suspect we’re going to see a very high turnout in the midterm election in 2022 just as we did in 2018. People understand now how important these elections are. People are determined to vote.”
Unfortunately, voting has become a very partisan issue, Abramowitz said, exacerbated by former Pres. Trump’s attempts to overturn the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. Georgia Republicans continue to doggedly push for what they see as a restoration of voter confidence.
Meanwhile, the social unrest of the past year along with attempted political upheavals by the Trump administration made Virginia resident Melvina Myrick more resolved.
“I’ve become a lot more cognizant about making sure I perform my civic duty to vote,” Myrick, a training analyst who lives in Chester, Va, told Atlanta Civic Circle.
She’s also closely following efforts around the country to restrict voting rights, including Georgia’s voting rights battle and new law.
“Just reading about it makes me angry,” Myrick said. “It’s hard for me to understand how that law was passed when you all were so successful in getting the two Democratic senators. It’s just revenge. It doesn’t make sense. Why can’t you bring water to somebody who’s standing in line to vote? It’s making it harder to vote by taking away drop boxes instead of making it easier for everyone to vote.”
Could recent achievements in Virginia be part of Georgia’s future?
“It could be,” Abramowitz said. “The key would be a shift in attitude toward voting.”
(Header image: Photo of Virginia welcome sign. Photo credit: Virginia Tourism Corp.; chart by Maggie Lee; chart research by Tammy Joyner)