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Commonwealth's Counties

Preclearance bill headed to Senate floor

HB 761 (VanValkenburg) seeks to establish a state-level preclearance process in lieu of the federal preclearance that was previously required under the Voting Rights Act.  Under the bill in its current form, any County or City containing two or more racial or ethnic groups that each constitute at least 20 percent of its voting-age population would need to submit certain election-related practices for state approval.  This approval would be granted via a declaratory judgment issued by the Circuit Court of the City of Richmond that the practice would not limit the exercise of voting rights by members of racial, ethnic, or language minority groups, or a certification by the Attorney General that he does not object to the practice.  Covered practices include changes to the method of election of members of a governing body, changes to election districts, and changes to polling places, including relocation of polling places.  The Attorney General would make an annual determination of which localities would be covered by the preclearance requirements.

The bill currently includes a delayed effective date for the entire bill of January 1, 2022, and a delay in its applicability to changes in election district boundaries until July 1, 2022.  The delay alleviates potential problems the bill may otherwise have created for the preparations for early voting in fall 2020 (as localities may not have been able to secure preclearance for the establishment of satellite early voting locations in time for those locations to be in place for September 2020 early voting).  However, VACo remains concerned about the bill, which will require even minor changes to polling place locations to be precleared and does not apply to the state, which plays a major role in the conduct of elections by prescribing voter qualifications and many voting-related practices either by statute or regulation.

After extensive discussion, the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee reported the bill by a 10-5 vote on February 25 and referred it to the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee due to its expected cost to the state for staffing in the Attorney General’s office.  The Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee reported the bill on March 2 with an amendment making it contingent upon the inclusion of funding in the state budget.  The House budget contains funding for the state costs, but the Senate budget does not.

VACo Contact:  Katie Boyle

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