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Until 1966, Virginia law required voters to pay a poll tax in order to cast a ballot. Voters registering for the first time had to pay the first three years in advance and submit their payment at least six months before Election Day.
These antiquated laws almost exclusively targeted Black voters across the state in an effort to limit their political power. As states across the country, including states like Texas and Georgia, attempt to reinvent laws aimed at suppressing the Black vote, Virginia has chosen to make history by going in the opposite direction.
First voting rights act in a Southern state passed in April
In the former capital of the Confederacy, two Black women in the state legislature just passed one of the most progressive voting rights acts ever written in the South, determined to protect the right to vote.
State Delegate Marcia Price of Newport News and state Senator Jennifer McClelland of Richmond worked together to pass the state’s voting rights act to restore the protections to Virginians that were lost when the federal act was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013. Governor Ralph Northam signed the bill into law earlier this month.
A state senator’s mission to protect the vote
For Senator McClellan, who is also running for Governor of the commonwealth of Virginia, this fight is personal.
“I remember when the first Voter ID law made it to the House floor [in 2013],” McClellan said. “I told the story of my grandfather who had to take a literacy test to register to vote.”
When her grandfather got every question correct, the registrar said to his colleague “I need more questions because this n****r got them all right.”
After successfully completing the second literacy test, he was told he needed to get three White people to “vouch for him”. He did.
Seven years later, McClellan was going through some old documents at home when she came across the her father’s 1947 poll tax receipt. The next day, on January 6th, 2021, a white supremacist mob would attempt to overthrow democracy in an attack on the US Capitol.
Perhaps this is why, with the very essence of democracy under attack, Jennifer McClellan refuses to shy away from the fight to protect it.
Defending democracy in the old capital of the Confederacy
The act McClellan and Price championed seeks to prevent further erosion of voter protections in Black and brown communities. The law requires oversight of changes to voting procedures and enhances voter education and outreach.
It also prohibits discrimination in voter registration or voting procedures and allows affected groups to challenge balloting changes in court.
“It feels incredible to be a part of these changes,” McClellan told the Black Wall Street Times. “To be a state senator and candidate for governor in the former capital of the Confederacy and pass the first voting rights act in the South – it’s incredible.”
McClellan launched her gubernatorial campaign in 2020 after serving for more than 15 years in the legislature. She would be the first female governor in Virginia and the first Black female governor in the United States.
Seizing the moment
On Monday, she unveiled her plan to make the commonwealth “number one in the nation for voting rights.”
McClellan’s plan includes automatic voter registration, creating an automatic vote-by-mail system, ending gerrymandering and more.
She believes Virginia and the nation sit at a “critical crossroads”, where the beloved community envisioned by Dr. King and others is within reach.
“But,” she cautioned,” we won’t get there if we don’t keep pushing and seize this moment together.”
A picture of her father’s poll tax receipt sits at the top of McClellan’s voting rights plan. This proximity to the past drives her forward as a state senator and in her campaign for governor.
“I am fighting the same fights as my parents,” she said, determined and resolved.
“I will not leave these fights to my children.”
Early voting has started in the Virginia gubernatorial primary. The final day to vote is Tuesday, June 8th.
To learn more about Sen. Jennifer McClellan and her campaign for governor, visit www.jennifermcclellan.com.