The 2012 General Assembly Session was one in which legislative hostility to civil rights and civil liberties continued to grow. The ultra-partisan redistricting process in which incumbent legislators chose their voters (in what is an increasingly technology-driven and undemocratic process) resulted in fall legislative elections that exaggerated the influence of the polar ends of the electorate and continued to minimize the voting power of blacks and other people of color.
In this environment, civil liberties victories this session were small and few. The bill requiring warrants for GPS tracking, the largely symbolic but important bill opposing indefinite detention of American citizens under the National Defense Authorization Act come to mind as positive developments.
Reproductive freedom and voting rights were sure to take a hit, however —and they did.
Virginia’s mandatory ultrasound bill, as originally introduced, was so bad it made national news, became the butt of jokes on late night television, and motivated demonstrations at the state Capitol unlike any seen in decades.
The voter ID bill continued the long and dismal history of Virginia efforts to suppress voter participation. With no history of voter impersonation fraud whatsoever in Virginia, the bill lawmakers approved is likely to disenfranchise many older people, people without cars, working people with inflexible schedules and others who forget to bring their ID’s to the polls. Under the new law, anyone who forgets their ID will have to make a special effort to get their ID to the office of their voter registrar to ensure that their vote will be counted. In a state that continues to be one of the few without early or no-excuse absentee voting and with the most restrictive voting rights restoration law in the country, this latest change underscores the apparent desire of a majority of Virginia’s lawmakers to further shrink the rolls of voters and undercut the most fundamental and important right in a democracy – the right to vote.
Our work to promote civil liberties and civil rights in Virginia has always been hard, but one late-night incident this past session illustrates most clearly what we’re really up against. In the wee hours of the morning on the last day they were in session, the Virginia House of Delegates, which has consistently rejected proposals to bar workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation, refused to elect a well-qualified candidate as a general district court judge simply because he is an openly gay man living in a committed relationship and raising a family. Although efforts were made to justify the decision on other grounds, it was clear then and now that the proffered reasons were simply a pretext for discrimination.