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Northam acts on sweeping voting rights measure, other bills

March 31, 2021 GMT
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam attends a news conference to announce the expansion of commuter rail in Virginia at the Amtrak and Virginia Railway Express (VRE) Alexandria Station, Tuesday, March 30, 2021, in Alexandria, Va. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam attends a news conference to announce the expansion of commuter rail in Virginia at the Amtrak and Virginia Railway Express (VRE) Alexandria Station, Tuesday, March 30, 2021, in Alexandria, Va. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Facing a deadline to act on bills from this year’s legislative session, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced Wednesday that he had signed several high-profile measures, including a school reopening bill, and advanced a sweeping voting rights measure.

Supporters of the Voting Rights Act of Virginia say it will protect and expand access to the ballot box, something they argue is necessary nearly eight years after the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the most powerful part of the landmark federal Voting Rights Act. They cheered Northam’s backing of the measure at a time when Republicans are campaigning nationwide to restrict voting access.

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“The Voting Rights Act of Virginia is a huge victory for our democracy,” said Sen. Jennifer McClellan, a sponsor of the bill who is also running for governor. “While other states are threatening voting rights, Virginia took a major step today to protect the right to vote.”

In June 2013, the Supreme Court voted to end the requirement in the Voting Rights Act that states with a history of discrimination in voting, mainly in the South and including Virginia, get Washington’s approval before changing the way they hold elections.

The new Virginia legislation would require local election officials to get public comment or pre-approval from the attorney general for voting changes, and it empowers voters and the attorney general to sue in cases of voter suppression.

It also requires local election officials to provide voting materials in foreign languages under certain conditions.

The legislation advanced over the objection of Republicans and local government associations that warned it could strain localities and lead to costly litigation.

Marcia Johnson-Blanco, co-director of the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, praised the bill in a statement.

“The Voting Rights Act of Virginia shows just how far a state with roots from the darkest days of racism in this country can come, and will be a model for the entire nation,” Johnson-Blanco said.

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Northam sent the bill back to the Democrat-controlled General Assembly with only technical amendments to fix what his spokeswoman called a minor drafting error. It is expected to pass next month when lawmakers reconvene to take up the governor’s amendments.

Northam also announced his decisions on several other of the legislative session’s top bills.

He sent a marijuana legalization bill back to lawmakers with a number of proposed changes, including an amendment that would accelerate the timeline for when possession and cultivation would become legal.

He signed a bill that will require schools to provide full-time, in-person instruction beginning July 1. Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, who is a doctor, led the push for the measure. He did not add an emergency clause, which would have made it take effect sooner, as Republicans had hoped.

Northam also signed a bill that would provide paid sick leave for home health care workers. Advocates worked hard to get the bill through the state Senate, and the version that passed was whittled far down from an initial version that would have covered a wide range of essential workers.

The governor also advanced a measure that would impose one of the most restrictive bans in the country on the use of facial recognition technology. The legislation prohibits all local law enforcement agencies and campus police departments from purchasing or using facial recognition technology unless it is expressly authorized by the state legislature. State police are not covered by the legislation.

Some law enforcement officials believe the legislation is overly broad and had lobbied Northam to amend it. But Northam sent it back to the General Assembly with only a minor amendment to correct a drafting error.

Also Wednesday, conservation groups including The Nature Conservancy issued a statement praising the governor’s decision to sign a measure intended to preserve the integrity of conservation easements, legal agreements that help protect land and preserve resources.

“With the passage of this legislation, the General Assembly has now made it clear that the underlying conservation purpose of easements must be upheld, thus protecting the intent of easement donors and the investment Virginia has made to permanently protect our farms, fields, forests and waterways,” Chris Miller, president of the Piedmont Environmental Council, said in a statement.

Earlier this week, Northam signed into law a bill creating a tuition-free community college initiative he’s long championed called “Get Skilled, Get a Job, Give Back.” The program and tens of millions in funding will make tuition-free community college available to low- and middle-income students who pursue jobs in certain high-demand fields and will also provide some financial aid for expenses like food and child care.

Northam, who took action on 552 bills this year and did not veto any, is in the midst of his final year in office. His term, which coincided with a Democratic takeover of the General Assembly, has seen once solidly red Virginia transformed into an outlier in the South. Voters will get a chance to weigh in on the direction the new Democratic majority has taken the state in elections for the House of Delegates and Virginia’s three statewide offices this fall.

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AP writer Denise Lavoie contributed to this report.