Dogwood Download: Things You Should Know For Wednesday, Feb. 3

A bill to require school districts to have in-person learning options has advanced through the Senate

By Arianna Coghill, Brian Carlton

February 3, 2021

Another lawsuit gets filed, an investigation starts and several bills move forward in the General Assembly.

RICHMOND- With only 10 days left in their short session, the General Assembly is in overdrive right now. Legislators advanced several bills yesterday, covering topics from preventing voter suppression to abolishing the death penalty. Here’s a breakdown of some of the big ticket bills legislators considered on Tuesday, plus a few news items from outside the chambers. 

Democratic Candidates File a Lawsuit

During a pandemic, people shouldn’t have to sign petitions in person. Six Democratic politicians made that argument Tuesday, as they filed a lawsuit against the Virginia Department of Elections and Virginia State Board of Elections.

The group includes current House of Delegates member Lee Carter, as well as five General Assembly candidates. Currently to make the primary ballot, candidates have to get people to sign their petition in person and with a witness present. Group members argue this is dangerous during a pandemic and they want the requirement removed.

Instead, they want to use the same system already in place for statewide candidates. Candidates for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general can request signatures digitally.

Senators Push Forward Voting Rights Act

Voting rights activists celebrated a win yesterday. The House of Delegates approved House Bill 1890, also known as the Voting Rights Act of Virginia, in a 55-45 vote. While the Voting Rights Act was approved on a federal level in the ‘60s, lawmakers and advocates want to create similar laws on a state level. That way, people’s right to vote can receive extra protections.

“Though the original Voting Rights Act was passed on the federal level in 1965, there are still attacks on voting rights today that can result in voter suppression, discrimination and intimidation,” Del. Cia Price said during the meeting. “We need to be clear that this is not welcome in our great Commonwealth.” 

This bill specifically adds protections that ensure voting rights can’t be taken away based on race, color and language barriers. Any localities caught violating these election laws could face civil penalties from the Attorney General. It now goes to the Virginia Senate for a vote.

RELATED: Votes Added, Voters Subtracted. What Happened With Richmond’s Election?

General Assembly Considers Housing Protections

Right now, homeowners in Virginia are only required to receive 14 days notice before their home is foreclosed on. This according, to housing rights advocates, is not enough time for people to get their housing arrangements in order, especially during a pandemic. 

Thankfully, another lifeline might be on its way. Yesterday, the Virginia Senate passed Sen. Jennifer McClellan’s bill to add protections for people facing foreclosure in Virginia. It passed with an unanimous vote.

This bill does two things. First, it bumps up the foreclosure notice period from two weeks to 60 days. It also requires mortgage companies to provide their clients with legal assistance and housing counselors. These protections are intended to help those facing housing insecurity keep their homes in the midst of a pandemic. 

But this isn’t the only bill that will protect people’s housing rights. The Senate also passed the Virginia Residential Landlord Tenant Act, or SB1215. SB1215 gives tenants remedies for exclusion from a dwelling unit, interruption of services or actions taken to make their dwelling unsafe.

This legislation is particularly important considering Virginia is in the midst of an eviction crisis. So far, since the eviction freeze ended in June, over 15,198 families have lost their homes. Dogwood reporter Amie Knowles live tweeted about this bill in this Twitter thread here

Both bills now go to the House for a vote.

Death Penalty Repeal Advances in General Assembly

After days of delays and hours of debate, the Senate advanced a controversial piece of legislation that would abolish the death penalty in Virginia. 26 senators voted in favor of the bill, while 13 cast votes against it.

For decades, people have debated the ethics of the death penalty. Unfortunately, the evidence shows that its application is not equitable. According to the ACLU, cases with white victims are three and a half times more likely to result in a death sentence than cases where the victims are Black.

“Law enforcement is not asking for more enforcement of the death penalty,” said State Sen. Scott Surovell, who filed the bill. “There’s a million other things they need more.”

For a detailed account of the lawmakers’ debate on this bill, check out our editor Brian Carlton’s Twitter thread here. Senators approved the bill on its second reading yesterday. Today, it will be read on the Senate floor for a third and final time. 

RELATED: Virginia’s Racist History With the Death Penalty Could Finally End

Henrico Graduate Becomes First Black Woman to Run MSNBC

Journalist Rashida Jones became MSNBC’s new president Monday. And not only is she MSNBC’s first Black female president, but she’s also the first Black woman to run a major cable news network.

A graduate from Henrico High School in Richmond, she gave her alma mater a shoutout on social media.

“I often think back to walking the campus of Henrico High School where my teachers pushed me towards academic excellence and emboldened my passion to lead through my work,” said Jones. “I have Henrico Country Public Schools to thank for inspiring to achieve goals beyond my dreams.”

Caroline County Deputies Kill Man In His Car

The Virginia State Police opened an investigation Tuesday into a police-involved shooting in Caroline County. On Monday at about 5 p.m., the Caroline County Sheriff’s Office received a call about a vehicle sitting in the middle of Countyline Church Road. According to State Police Sgt. Dylan Davenport, local residents reported finding a man unconscious in the driver’s seat. They called 911 and sheriff’s deputies responded. 

By the time deputies arrived, the driver, 58-year-old Richard Fenton Thomas was awake. After this, the information gets thin. Davenport said the Spotsylvania County resident refused to “comply with commands given by deputies and was subsequently shot.” 

Thomas died at the scene, Davenport said. Also, officials notified the Caroline County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office and recovered dash camera footage from the deputies vehicles. 

“Once [the] state police completes its investigation, the investigative findings will be turned over to the Commonwealth’s Attorney for final review and adjudication,” Davenport said. 

Virginia Tech Students Get Financial Help

The town of Blacksburg has agreed to help Virginia Tech students with transportation issues this semester. Town officials will offset the university’s semester payment to Transit Services. That means full-time students might not have to pay their regular transportation fee.

Under Virginia Tech policy, full-time students pay a $96 fee for unlimited trips on Blacksburg Transit bus service. Blacksburg plans to use CARES Act funding to cover the cost.

One step remains. Virginia Tech’s Board of Visitors have to approve a resolution waiving the fee. That will take place at their next meeting.

Arianna Coghill is a content producer with Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected]

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