By Virginia state Senator Jennifer McClellan D-Richmond
This winter, while looking through my late father’s papers, I found a receipt I’d never seen before: It was the poll tax he paid in 1948 during Harry Truman’s election.
I already knew about my great-grandfather’s two literacy tests and how he had to find three white men to vouch for his character in order to overcome Jim Crow laws and vote in 1901 Alabama. And here I was, 120 years later holding evidence of the unjust system that my own father had to face in order to vote.
For many Virginians like me, we live only one generation removed from the era of poll taxes and literacy tests. So, when we see Donald Trump or his supporters in Georgia attempt to discount votes from Black and Brown communities, the wounds are still raw.
Since the 2020 presidential election, 47 states are pursuing more than 361 pieces of restrictive legislation, all aimed at making it harder for people to vote. Black women like Georgia Representative Park Cannon are still arrested for just knocking on the door of voter suppression, showing us how fragile the gains we’ve made really are.
Virginia has made extraordinary progress on expanding voting rights. In the last 5 years, Virginia has moved from being the second-hardest state to vote in in the country, to the 12th easiest.
I have been fighting to expand access to voting my entire adult life because I understand that voting is the most sacred act in our democracy. My first bill as a legislator expanded absentee and provisional voting, and since then I’ve ended prison gerrymandering in the Commonwealth and blocked Republican attempts to impose voting barriers like voter ID requirements.
One of the proudest achievements of my career came this year when Delegate Marcia Price and I led the passage of the Voting Rights Act of Virginia. Modeled after the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, Virginia will now protect voters in the Commonwealth from suppression, discrimination, and intimidation. Not only is this the first voting rights act in the South, but one of the strongest in the country.
We still have work to do to expand voting rights and ensure that Virginians never again experience what Georgians are facing right now. That is why today, I introduced my plan to expand upon the Voting Rights Act of Virginia and safeguard voting rights for generations to come. As Governor, I will lead a voting rights agenda that builds on our progress to make Virginia the number one state in the country for voter protections and access.
Under my plan, Virginia will become the sixth state in the country to implement an automatic vote-by-mail option. Last year, Virginians reaped the benefits of voting-by-mail and saw the largest number of Virginians vote in history. Under a McClellan administration, every Virginian voter will automatically receive a vote-by-mail ballot and have the option to send their vote through the mail or return it to their polling location. This will increase voting accessibility, especially for older Virginians and Virginians with disabilities, and encourage more people to vote.
I will also implement a back-end, opt-out model for automatic voter registration, a much more efficient system that Oregon successfully implemented to register 94% of the people who interacted with the state Department of Motor Vehicles. Following this cutting edge Oregon model will make it easier for more people to automatically register at the DMV.
Additionally, currently 40% of voting locations in Virginia are not accessible for individuals with disabilities. Through partnerships with the Board of Elections and disability advocacy groups, I will ensure that 100% of polling locations are compliant with the ADA and convenient for voters starting with directing a statewide accessibility audit through the Board of Elections to ensure that 100% of polling places are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
As Governor, I will implement ranked-choice voting in Virginia multi-candidate elections. Shown to promote more representative elections and more positive campaigning, a ranked voting system would allow voters to choose from a list of candidates, ranking their preferences. Once implemented, Virginia would follow Maine—the first state to allow voters to choose their representatives by ranked choice vote.
I will also introduce a constitutional amendment to prevent racial gerrymandering and enshrine redistricting criteria to explicitly protect minority groups. This builds on a law that Del. Price and I passed in 2020. And I will champion the recently pending constitutional amendment to automatically restore voting rights for those who were formerly incarcerated, which I co-patroned, and work to end felony disenfranchisement altogether. A lifetime bar on civic engagement does nothing to benefit the goals of the justice system, and in fact it only hinders an individual’s rehabilitative journey.
The growing threat to voting rights, both by state legislatures and a far-right Supreme Court, is one of the reasons I chose to run for Governor, and the reason I have made protecting these rights a central part of my campaign. With my plan to safeguard voting rights, we will not only acknowledge our Commonwealth’s painful history of disenfranchising Black and Brown voters but taking action to address its enduring legacies.
Congressman John Lewis reminded us that “Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part.” As we remember what previous generations have endured, we must work today to protect the right to vote for generations to come.
*Jennifer McClellan is a Democratic candidate for Governor of Virginia. She has served 15 years in the General Assembly, first as a Delegate and currently as a Senator.*
Virginia Scope is an independent news publication that is funded largely by donations and subscribers. As local newsrooms are losing writers each day, we are trying to fill the void to ensure that the public is informed and that leaders are held accountable for their actions. If you can chip in a monthly subscription of whatever you can afford, even $1, it will go a long way to helping us. Subscribe here. You can also make a one-time donation below: