Virginia governor backs bill to end Lee-Jackson Day and make Election Day a holiday

RICHMOND, Va. (WHSV) — Virginia Governor Ralph Northam has endorsed a bill that would scrap Virginia's Lee-Jackson holiday celebrating two Confederate generals in favor of one on Election Day.

It's among a handful of legislative proposals Northam included in a set of endorsements he says would help increase access to voting.

“Voting is a fundamental right,” said Governor Northam. “But in a state that once put up tremendous barriers to voting, too many people are still unable to participate meaningfully in our democracy. By making it easier—not harder—to vote, these proposals will ensure we are building a government that is truly representative of the people we serve. I look forward to working with the General Assembly to pass these important measures into law.”

The governor is backing a bill patroned by Senator Mamie Locke and Delegate Charniele Herring to allow early voting in Virginia for 45 days before Election Day, rather than the current state standard, which allows absentee voting if voters provide the state with a reason from an approved list.

He's also backing a bill proposed by Delegate Joseph Lindsey, HB 108, which would remove Lee-Jackson Day's state holiday status and make Election Day a state holiday instead.

Lee-Jackson Day, established over 100 years ago, is observed annually on the Friday preceding the third Monday (which is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day) in January. It honors Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, both of whom were native Virginians. The holiday was initially created to celebrate Lee's birthday, which was on January 19.

In the Virginia code, both men are noted as “defenders of causes.”

State offices in Virginia are closed for both holidays. Celebrations include a wreath-laying ceremony, a Civil War themed parade, a gala ball, and in some places, Confederate flags placed on the graves of dead soldiers.

However, Virginia cities such as Richmond, Fredericksburg, Blacksburg, Newport News, Hampton, Winchester, Fairfax and Charlottesville have decided in recent years to not officially observe the holiday.

Officials have defended the day as a celebration of history, while critics view it as a celebration of the state’s slave-holding history.

Each year, the Virginia General Assembly holds floor speeches to mark the state holiday. This year, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax stopped presiding over the state Senate as senators honored Gen. Robert E. Lee.

A similar bill to designate Election Day as a state holiday and remove Lee-Jackson Day from Virginia's state holidays was killed in a Senate committee this past year. However, at that point, Republicans controlled the Virginia Senate. After Democrats' wins in November, which gained them control of both chambers of the statehouse, the bill may face a more favorable chance in 2020.

Governor Northam's administration said at that time that they supported the bill then as well, because making Election Day a state holiday would allow more people the chance to vote.

“There have been cases where voters had to leave polls before casting their votes, simply because they had to return to work,” Sen. Louise Lucas said. “Making Election Day a state holiday would make it easier for Virginians to vote.”

Sen. Richard Black voiced concerns about the 2019 bill removing Lee-Jackson Day, saying, “I have unease about the movement to erasing history. Maybe next time, it’ll be Martin Luther King. I would be opposed to erasing something in his honor.”

Del. Lindsey proposed a similar bill last year as well.

In 2016, Donald McEachin — then a state senator and now a member of Congress — also introduced a bill to designate Election Day as a holiday instead of Lee-Jackson Day. The Senate General Laws and Technology Committee defeated McEachin’s bill on a 7-8 vote, with seven Democrats in favor of the bill and eight Republicans opposed to it.

Six of those Republican senators, with the addition of Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, voted against the 2019 Senate bill, while five of the same Democratic senators — once again — voted for it.

“As expected,” Lucas said earlier this year, as her bill was defeated. “But I’ll see you again next year.”

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The Associated Press contributed to this article.