POLITICS

Virginia Makes Election Day A Holiday In Wave Of New Voting Rights Laws

Gov. Ralph Northam also signed measures repealing the state's strict voter ID law and adopting automatic voter registration.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) announced Sunday that he has signed into law several measures meant to expand voting rights, including making Election Day a state holiday.

“Voting is a fundamental right, and these new laws strengthen our democracy by making it easier to cast a ballot, not harder,” Northam said in a statement. “No matter who you are or where you live in Virginia, your voice deserves to be heard. I’m proud to sign these bills into law.”

The Election Day law replaces the current holiday honoring Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, so Virginia maintains the same number of state holidays. The day commemorating Lee and Jackson, both of whom owned slaves, had been established about 25 years after the Civil War ended.

“We need to make Election Day a holiday,” Northam said in his State of the Commonwealth speech earlier this year. “We can do it by ending the Lee-Jackson holiday that Virginia holds. … It commemorates a lost cause. It’s time to move on.”

Several cities and states already treat Election Day as a holiday, including Delaware, Hawaii, Kentucky and New York. Advocates of the measure say it could improve voter turnout in a country where many residents can’t make it to the polls because of school and/or work.

Democrats proposed a sweeping voting rights bill in January 2019 that would make Election Day a paid federal holiday. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called the measure a “power grab” by Democrats that would enable government workers to “hang out at the polls” to campaign for candidates while getting paid for the day. He bottled up the bill in his chamber.

Under the new Virginia laws, voters will no longer have to show photo identification before casting their ballot ― a requirement that has effectively disenfranchised some low-income people who don’t have driver’s licenses because they can’t afford to have a car.

“Virginia’s photo ID law was designed to make it more difficult to vote,” said Del. Joe Lindsey (D), who sponsored many of the voting rights bills in the state House, including the photo ID repeal. “It is past time we repealed this law, and I’m grateful to the governor for helping us get it done.” 

Virginia also will now allow people to cast a ballot 45 days before an election without a stated excuse; previously, the state required voters wanting an absentee ballot to provide a reason from an approved list as to why they were unable to vote on Election Day. The new laws also expand the timelines for applying for absentee ballots and extends in-person polling hours.

“We need more access to the ballot box, not less,” state Senate President Pro Tempore Louise Lucas (D), who sponsored the Election Day holiday bill in her chamber, said in a statement. “I am so proud to be a part of new laws that expand access to voting and make our Commonwealth more representative of the people we serve. Today is an historic day.”

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