Tram Nguyen on how Virginia passed its own Voting Rights Act

Tram Nguyen is the the co-executive director of New Virginia Majority. She spoke with Facing South about Virginia's new Voting Rights Act and the fight for voting rights across the country. (Photo courtesy of Tram Nguyen)

On July 1, the same day that the U.S. Supreme Court narrowed the only major section of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 still in force with its ruling in the Arizona case Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, the Virginia Voting Rights Act went into effect, providing broad protections against voter suppression, discrimination, and intimidation. As Republican-controlled states across the South raced to establish new voting restrictions in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision gutting the Voting Rights Act, Democratic-controlled Virginia ultimately moved in the opposite direction by passing legislation that will protect the state's marginalized voters and expand ballot access.

Facing South recently spoke with Tram Nguyen, co-executive director of the voting rights group New Virginia Majority, who helped craft the Virginia law. Modeled after the federal Voting Rights Act, it requires all local elections administrators to get preclearance from the state's attorney general for election changes like moving voting precincts or registrars' offices, allows voters and the attorney general to sue over voter suppression, and prohibits racial discrimination or intimidation related to voting. We discussed her experience with organizing for expansive voting rights legislation, the importance of grassroots organizing at the state level, and the urgent need for federal action on voting rights.

Since joining New Virginia Majority in 2008, Nguyen has helped build a multi-issue, multi-racial coalition that's transforming Virginia through civic engagement and community organizing. Under her leadership, New Virginia Majority has expanded the state's electorate by registering nearly 300,000 new voters and knocking on over 3 million doors to get people of color and young people out to vote. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Virginia has a long history of voter suppression and passing laws that undermine voting rights. Can you talk about the significance of it now being the first state in the South with its own voting rights act?

If you look at just even three years ago, in 2018, Virginia was 49th in the country when it comes to access to voting.

Our history of voter suppression is a long, long dark history. And over the last couple of years, we have worked so hard to bring Virginia to the forefront of voting rights. After the 2020 legislative session, and prior to the Voting Rights Act of Virginia being passed, we jumped from 49th to 12th. That's something we're really proud of, after one legislative session where we had more folks in office that actually understood the significance of what a real representative democracy means. And that means that all of our citizens should have the ability to exercise our right to vote.

And then, one year later after we made all of those strides in 2020, we did more. We knew there was more work to do. And so the Voting Rights Act of Virginia passed. We're not only the first state in the South to have a voting rights act but are the first state in the country to have as comprehensive a voting rights act as we do.

You look at states like California and Oregon that have passed their version. It's very narrowly focused. Making sure that there isn't vote dilution in terms of racial minorities — that's really more of what they're addressing. And what we have is actually modeled after the federal Voting Rights Act that has been gutted in two Supreme Court cases now, in the 2013 Shelby v. Holder case and then this year's Arizona case.

So, we're the first state in the South — and the first state that was covered prior to Shelby v. Holder under federal preclearance requirements — to pass our own state voting rights act modeled after the federal Voting Rights Act. It means that before any locality in Virginia can make any voting change it has to be assessed for its impact on language and racial minorities.

To me personally the significance of it is, you go back and rewind all the way to history. Virginia is where the first representative democracy, the first House of Burgesses, was formed over 400 years ago, right? At least in the Western world. Also, the first state where the first enslaved Africans were brought to the shores of this country. So there was that sort of duality there. And we've had a very long history of voter suppression.

We're not only the first state in the South to have a voting rights act but are the first state in the country to have as comprehensive a voting rights act as we do.

In our state constitution, we permanently disenfranchised people convicted of felonies, all of these things. And so today to have a Voting Rights Act of Virginia that declares very explicitly that the state is going to protect your right to vote and your right to have that truly representative democracy? I think it signals coming full circle.

What inspired this effort, and why was it important to push from the state level rather than wait on federal action?

Well, I'll first say that federal action is important and we need to do everything we can collectively to make sure that Congress acts. Our right to vote should not depend on where we live.

I think at the state level, why we felt like we needed to do it at this time is because of what we're seeing across the country. We are seeing so many bills introduced in states to suppress the right to vote.

And I think there was an opportunity to be proactive and to lead the way and to show the country what it could look like, what is possible. To dream big. I think that was part of the motivation for the Voting Rights Act. But also just from a more granular level, consider what we saw in Virginia in our elections in 2019. One example I'll give is in Prince William County prior to the early voting period, the absentee voting period, the county had publicized and said that they were going to offer five Saturdays of in-person early voting. And the week before that first Saturday, the elections director decided unilaterally that that was no longer going to be the case.

There was no public hearing. There was no information shared. I heard on a Friday evening, "Nope, we're not going to have Saturday voting." They cut it down to just the two Saturdays prior to the election. And people had made plans to vote. We were able to push back and fight back. And the county board said, "No, we're going to reinstate all five Saturdays." But the Voting Rights Act of Virginia could prevent something like that. Before that election change happened, there would be a second look at it to see if it actually takes away the ability of voters to be able to cast their ballot.

How important was the collaboration of grassroots organizing and elected officials in this effort?

It was a team effort. It was a labor of love. The grassroots folks who are in the trenches, engaging with voters every day to understand the hardships that voters face and the challenges that they face, brought stories to the table so that folks could recognize that this is a problem that we need to address. That there are ways we can address people's access to voting.

And then from there you have these lawmakers, and the Legislative Black Caucus, that said voting rights is going to be a priority. You have Sen. Jennifer McClellan and Del. Marcia Price who were willing to roll up their sleeves and dream big and think about how big and bold we could be with our Voting Rights Act.

And then also reaching out to our national partners at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Advancement Project, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, to see what are the best pieces of the federal Voting Rights Act that we could use and adopt at the state level. What could this actually look like from a legal angle? And really relying on their expertise.

But it was like all of us sort of brainstorming, throwing out ideas, massaging it, working with legislative services staff to get the language right. And once we got the language right, and we got the draft bill right, getting it through the General Assembly was also a team effort, making sure that we got more legislators and lawmakers on board to get it to a "Yes." Being able to answer hard questions about what the bill does and what it doesn't do. I will say it really was a monumental team effort and one of the proudest pieces of legislation that I've had the pleasure to work on.

Can you talk about how this legislation will provide protection for marginalized voters in the state?

The bill in many ways is preventive. It's trying to prevent efforts that could potentially dilute or suppress the community's votes. Localities have to think twice before implementing something, which I think is important and significant.

But also at the same time it puts in place some requirements. So, for example, language access requirements. We now have it in our state law that you have to make information available to communities in languages that they can understand. There's a similar federal provision based on census data, but in Virginia the only locality that is subject to those language requirements under federal law is Fairfax County. They're required to provide information in Spanish and Vietnamese, but no other language.

You have populations in pockets across the state, communities that speak Amharic and Korean or Tagalog, all of these different languages. And so we have provisions now at the state level that say if there are significant populations that speak a particular language you have to make information available in that language, too — that they deserve to have knowledge around our electoral process and how they could actually cast the ballot. I think that that's really significant.

But I think the main thing in Virginia's Voting Rights Act is to make sure that there's no voter suppression, that we protect racial and language minorities, that we are preventing, as much as we can, any type of policy or election administration implementation that would, or could potentially, take someone's right to vote away before it happens. Because once it's taken away, and an election's over and done with, the person's already lost their right to vote.

But now we're trying to say on the front end, "No." We're going to make sure that that doesn't happen to begin with, versus trying to litigate after the fact. But there are litigation provisions in the state Voting Rights Act as well. So if we have to, there are opportunities for citizens or the attorney general's office to take legal action.

What advice would you give organizers in other states who are trying to counter these new voting restrictions while also pushing for laws that would expand the right to vote?

You have to do both. For 10 years we were playing defense against attacks to voting. In 2009 to 2013, we were able to successfully defend against state voter ID provisions, for example. And then in 2013 they passed it. But it was four years of defense on that one.

But at the same time, during those four years, we also had proactive legislation that expanded absentee voting, that did all of these other things, that allowed for online voter registration. They didn't pass, but I think having that counter message was really important, so that when you have the conditions in which you can pass something the groundwork has already been laid. You don't have to start fresh with the arguments, with the bill drafts, with getting public support, because you've done that base building. You've done the grassroots organizing.

There are states even now where it seems like having proactive voting rights legislation is a pipe dream. I mean, look at what's happening in Texas. That doesn't mean that you don't make the effort, because who knows? There's a lot of other organizing, and people are shifting political landscapes and states all the time. In Virginia, we were on the defense for many years, then we were able to finally pass some things. That's how we were able to successfully go from 49th to 12th in voting access in one year, because all of these things that were waiting in the wings for so long were able to just pass and get through.

What is your hope for the future of voting rights in Virginia and across the country?

I hope that our Voting Rights Act here can serve as a potential blueprint for other states across the country. To signal that just as there are places where the right to vote is being challenged and taken away from people, that there are other places. There's still a great number of places where we believe in the access to the ballot.

I think that there should be efforts at the state level to advanced voting rights acts. And then, yes, we all have to come together to try to get federal action done, because it goes back to what I was saying. Our ability to vote, my ability to vote, shouldn't depend on where I live. If I decide that I want to move to Georgia, as a citizen I should have the same right to vote in Virginia as I do in Georgia, as I do in Maine. And so I think it's really important that we get some federal action done as well.

Are there any next steps for voting advocates in Virginia who want to make voting easier?

The felony re-enfranchisement rights restoration has been a cornerstone of our work since 2009. We are on the cusp of making permanent change to that. It requires a change to our constitution. Every year since 2009 we've introduced a constitutional amendment in the General Assembly. And every year since 2009, it has failed — except for this year.

So we did get language passed this year, and we have to get it past the General Assembly again next year. And if it does, then voters get to choose. So voters will decide in November of 2022 whether or not they want to amend our constitution to take away that Jim Crow-era law that's on our books that disenfranchises people convicted of felonies.

We know that there's broad support for it. The public has supported it for years, and we're very hopeful that we will get it done. It's like you can sort of see the light at the end of the tunnel. The finish line is just right there, and we're on that third leg of a four-leg relay race. That's the big thing on the horizon right now for us.