Have you been following the progressive news coming out of Virginia? You know, Virginia — in 2016, ranked the nation’s 49th most difficult state in which to vote, second only to Mississippi? Named by the USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy in 2018 as the state with the worst partisan (GOP) state-legislative gerrymandering in the country? The state with such an egregious history of racial discrimination, it was one of the nine states singled out for “preclearance” in the 1965 Voting Rights Act, meaning it had to obtain federal approval for any proposed changes to voting laws? That Virginia?
Fast forward to 2021, when the news from the Old Dominion State has me clutching my head, lest it explode from cognitive dissonance. (In a good way.) Virginia is now poised to become the first southern state to adopt its own Voting Rights Act… and, as of last year, became the 12th easiest state to vote in in the nation. In another first, Virginia just became the only southern state to mandate a statewide transition to 100% carbon-free electricity grid by 2050. And it’s become the first southern state to ban discrimination on basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in public accommodations and employment. (See below for a more in-depth list of progressive accomplishments.)
Fed up with an unresponsive and unrepresentative GOP-gerrymandered state legislature, Virginia Democrats went to the polls in 2017 and threw the bums out, restoring the state House imbalance from 66 GOP > 34 Democrat to a more accurately representative 51 GOP > 49 Democrat. (In a nail-biter moment, GOP House incumbent Yancey tied with Sister District Project candidate Shelly Simonds; a hat-draw won the race for Yancey, but fear not, Simonds surged back in 2019 to win the seat).
In 2018, the newly realigned state legislature overrode five years of Republican stonewalling and voted to expand Medicaid to 400,000+ Virginians. And in 2019, voters finished the job, flipping both state Chambers and turning the state into a blue trifecta. (Sister District was there from the beginning, and is proud to have supported 19 winning candidates for Virginia House and Senate since 2017!)
Local organizing groups have been tilling the civic soil for years, keeping the ground fertile for progressive legislation. Stacey Abrams’ Fair Fight may be the most notable example of grassroots organizing — and given the atrocity of a voter-suppression law just passed by Georgia state legislators, the group’s work is far from over — but truth is, on-the-ground groups like hers are working for justice year-round in all the states. Unlike larger political apparatuses, these grassroots coalitions don’t just swoop in during election season — they represent their communities day in and day out, listening to people’s concerns, supporting burgeoning progressive leaders, getting out the vote, working for economic equity, fighting the copycat voter-suppression laws sprouting up in GOP-controlled legislatures across the country, and generally battling the Bad Guys on all fronts.
Take New Virginia Majority, a multi-racial, multi-issue grassroots powerhouse that has educated and mobilized 1 million+ voters of color in the state. Co-Executive Director Tram Nguyen has been focusing on civic engagement in the state for years, and is ecstatic at the results of the blue wave.
“What has been achieved under the Democratic trifecta has been tremendous,” she says. “Our organization alone passed 60 bills that had been in the works for years.” Sister District is proud to support NVM via SDP’s new State Bridges program, launched to support effective on-the-ground initiatives in key states.
… said some wise person (probably not Thomas Jefferson, alas). With Virginia House seats and the Governorship up for election this year, we are in a joyful but fragile place. SDP alumnus Delegate Joshua Cole stresses the importance of getting voters to the polls and maintaining the blue majority in November.
“There’s so much left to do,” he says. “Imagine the halting and the stalling that will happen if we, say, lose the House or the Governorship!”
He’s not kidding. According to the Virginia Public Access Project, GOP lawmakers in Virginia’s 2021 General Assembly almost unanimously opposed every piece of progressive legislation presented. STATE ELECTIONS MATTER.
But let’s finish on a happier note, with a closer look at what life under a blue trifecta looks like. Herewith, a non-exhaustive list of notable legislation passed by the Virginia legislature since 2020 — humane, life-saving measures that would’ve been unthinkable before the blue wave.
· Pledges to eliminate all harmful carbon emissions from state utilities by 2050, making VA the only southern state to mandate a target of 100% clean energy (currently, the state is pocked with ponds and landfills leaching toxic coal-ash waste from coal-burning power plants);
· Provides ratepayer protections for efficient energy, and energy-efficiency help for marginalized communities, veterans, and the disabled;
· Requires state to ensure VECA doesn’t disproportionately affect minority and historically disadvantaged communities;
· Will launch the largest offshore wind farms in the country.
· Removes infantilizing, medically unnecessary requirements that pregnant women undergo an ultrasound 24 hours before abortion and receive mandatory “counseling” on alternatives;
· Strikes onerous TRAP (Targeted Restrictions on Abortion Providers) requirement that designates facilities providing 5+ abortions/year as “hospitals.”
· Affords consumers certain controls over their personal data, and limits certain data-collection actions by businesses. VA is now the second state, after CA, to enact major privacy legislation.
· Raises minimum age of juveniles to be tried as adult in circuit court for murder (introduced by Elizabeth Guzman);
· Decriminalizes marijuana;
· Strikes requirement that jail officers ask and report citizenship of people charged with certain crimes.
(First southern state to do so! Sponsored by Mike Mullin).
· Allows same-day voter registration (introduced by Hala Ayala);
· Makes Election Day a holiday (patrons include Wendy Gooditis & Elizabeth Guzman);
· Extends absentee-ballot voting deadline and allows for no-excuse absentee voting;
· Decommissions Lee-Jackson Day (that would be Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson) as a state holiday;
· Approves automatic voter registration;
· Repeals photo ID requirement and allows for additional forms of ID. According to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Black and Latino voters are much less likely than whites to possess eligible photo ID.
· In January 2020, Virginia became 38th state to ratify the ERA (sponsored by Jennifer Carroll Foy, who, incidentally, is running for Governor!)
· Enacts universal background checks (FINALLY);
· Establishes Extreme Risk Protection Order (ERPO) (aka “Red Flag Law,” allowing temporary removal of gun from someone deemed a danger to self or others);
· Establishes Breonna’s Law, banning no-knock search warrants;
· Limits the number of guns purchased per month (good god, only in America);
· Permits cities & counties to restrict guns in designated areas;
· Bans trigger activators;
· Tightens rules on gun storage and requires stricter reporting for lost or stolen guns;
· Bans homemade “ghost guns” and guns at polling places (these measures currently under discussion).
Some context: Because of lax gun laws, Virginia plays a central role in the so-called Iron Pipeline, the I-95 route whereby guns are smuggled from southern states up to the more strictly-regulated mid-Atlantic and New England states. Remember 2019? After the heinous mass shooting at Virginia Beach, GOP state legislators walked out of an emergency legislative session, and voted to adjourn, rather than discuss gun safety. Passing any kind of gun legislation in this trigger-happy state is a Big Deal.
· Bans so-called “conversion therapy”;
· Repeals statutory prohibitions on same-sex marriages (the prohibitions were invalidated in 2015, but still);
· Requires VA Department of Education to create “model policies” for school boards’ treatment of transgender students;
· Prohibits discrimination on basis of sexual orientation & gender identity in public accommodations and employment, making VA the first southern state to ban such discrimination.
· Forbids “surprise medical billing,” whereby out-of-network providers bill a patient for more than the patient’s insurance co-pay (co-patroned by Wendy Gooditis).
· Increases minimum wage from federally mandated $7.25/hour to $9.50, up to $15/hour effective January 1, 2026.
· Allows undocumented immigrants, who are by law not permitted to obtain a license (and who thus risk arrest and deportation for driving), permission to drive. Virginia is one of 16 states to allow privilege cards. (Chief patroned by Kathy Tran and co-patroned by Hala Ayala, Karrie Delaney, Elizabeth Guzman, Chris Hurst, & Shelly Simonds).
· Requires local election officials to get public feedback, or permission from state Attorney General, before changing voting rules;
· Allows voters to sue if they believe changes have disproportionate effect based on “race or color or membership in a language minority group;”
· Requires voting materials in foreign languages appropriate to the district’s population;
· Prohibits at-large municipal elections if they would dilute the voting power of racial minorities.
Some context: as mentioned above, Virginia was one of nine states whose voting processes were subject to federal oversight under the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In 2013, the US Supreme Court eviscerated this section of the VRA, removing federal oversight and allowing these states to resume business as usual. Unsurprisingly, voter suppression in those nine states soared; according to the Brennan Center for Justice, the median post-2013 rate of voter purging (the practice of deleting names from voter rolls) was 40 percent higher in the former “preclearance” states — including Virginia — than in other jurisdictions. Virginia’s VRA passed the state House and Senate along party lines and is expected to be signed into law by Governor Northam on March 31, 2021.
· Protects workers from exploitation via misclassification by employers (co-patroned by Karrie Delaney & Elizabeth Guzman);
· Guarantees five days’ paid sick leave for certain essential workers. (The bill passed in the House but may face a tough battle in the Senate. Sponsored by Elizabeth Guzman).
See what’s possible under a Blue state government? It’s up to all of us, all over the country, to support the forces of good in Virginia and keep the momentum going. Sic semper tyrannis, indeed.
– Juliet Eastland
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