From Virginia to Congress, Jennifer McClellan Champions Voting Rights

Blue toned image of Rep. Jennifer McClellan (D-Va.) being sworn into Congress in front of a cutout of the U.S. Capitol building and a blue toned Virginia.

On a spring day in 2006, Jennifer McClellan took a photo commemorating a major moment as a young lawmaker. Sitting across the table from a smiling Tim Kaine, the then-Democratic governor of Virginia, McClellan celebrated her first bill signed into law as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.

Only a few months into her tenure as a state representative, McClellan’s new bill allowed voters who applied for a mail-in ballot but didn’t receive it to vote provisionally at their polling place. Even if this sounded like a technical concern, for McClellan, reducing barriers to voting — big and small — was a priority from the very start of her career.

Over 17 years later, when asked why voting has been a central policy focus for her, McClellan responded: “I mean, frankly, it was personal.”

In a conversation with Democracy Docket, she told the story of her great grandfather, a Black man who was forced to take a literacy test to register to vote in Alabama. When he excelled on the test, the white registrars were not satisfied and tried to find more questions. “I found out later that my father and my grandfather both had to pay poll taxes,” she explained further. “It’s our family’s personal history, for how much we had to overcome to be able to vote that really made voting a personal issue for me.”

Now, McClellan is the first Black woman to represent Virginia in Congress. In February 2023, McClellan, who was serving as a state Senator at the time, won a special election in Virginia’s 4th Congressional District. Earning nearly 75% of the vote, she filled the open seat of late Rep. Don McEachin (D-Va.).

On our morning call, McClellan was politician-ready with a blouse and pearl necklace. Her at-home work setup revealed more, with kids’ drawings plastering the door behind her. A handwritten poster read “VOTE JENN!” in block letters.

Her journey into public office emerged from a longstanding interest in history, government and the stories she heard from her parents who grew up during the Jim Crow era. “The more I thought about it, the more I realized I want to be the one making change and not just letting other people do it,” McClellan told me. “I ran for the House of Delegates in 2005 and won and never looked back.”

“We’ve got a pro-democracy majority and we’re going to use it”: How McClellan’s tenure in state politics transformed Virginia

During her time in the state Legislature, McClellan worked to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, pass clean energy legislation and protect reproductive rights. In just four years, from 2016 to 2020, Virginia went from the second-hardest state to vote in to the 12th easiest state. McClellan credits that dramatic jump to a number of electoral reforms passed in 2020, all signed by former Gov. Ralph Northam (D). The state adopted no-excuse mail-in voting and same-day registration, designated Election Day as a holiday, created one of the longest early voting periods in the country, allowed anyone to vote early without a stated reason, repealed the strictest aspects of the state’s voter ID law and more.

In addition to permanent reforms, the state made temporary changes in light of the COVID-19 pandemic: requiring drop boxes and removing the witness requirement for mail-in voting. “Those two pieces were in response to the pandemic but everything else really was ‘we’ve got a pro democracy majority and we’re going to use it,’” McClellan explained, referencing the two years from 2020 to 2021 when Virginia had a Democratic trifecta, meaning that Democrats controlled the governorship and both chambers of the Legislature.

In 2021, the Old Dominion State took another big leap forward with the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of Virginia. At the time, only California, Washington and Oregon had enacted state-level voting rights acts; New York would soon follow in Virginia’s footsteps.

The federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) was a landmark achievement for American democracy, but the U.S. Supreme Court has undermined the law in the past decade. In Shelby County v. Holder (2013), the Court gutted one of the VRA’s most powerful tools: Section 5, which required states or counties with histories of discriminatory voting practices to receive approval from the federal government before enacting new changes. 

In response to Shelby County and the failure of Congress to reauthorize new protections, McClellan gathered together with state Delegate Cia Price (D) and Tram Nguyen of New Virginia Majority, a grassroots organization focused on democratic reforms and economic justice. The trio decided: “If we’re going to do a state version of the Voting Rights Act, let’s do a real one,” McClellan described. “We looked through the entire Voting Rights Act and said, ‘How do we bring all of it into state laws?’”

The Virginia VRA outlined a review process for certain local election law changes. To get approval from the state, officials must publish the proposed change to the public, allow public feedback and provide a waiting period during which anyone who finds that the proposed practice has “the purpose or effect” of making it harder to vote on the account of race or language may take action in court. Alternatively, the local election office can submit the proposed change to the attorney general’s office for approval, mirroring the now-defunct Section 5 of the federal VRA. 

“Strengthening our voter intimidation, voter discrimination and voter suppression laws,” were included in the VRA, McClellan listed. “Prohibiting any at-large city council [or] board of supervisor schemes that would disenfranchise voters, particularly protected classes” was part of the law as well. She added that the new legal protections levied fines against violators and those fines went toward a voter education and outreach fund.

“We brought in the language access requirements of the federal VRA so if any population reaches certain thresholds of non English languages, then the local registrars would have to provide election materials in those languages,” she continued. “It came directly from the federal Voting Rights Act.” 

In Congress, McClellan wants to pass voting rights legislation, but understands how to navigate less-than-ideal political environments. 

As the newest member of the U.S. House of Representatives, McClellan is taking on her next and most high profile role as public official. McClellan was sworn in just over a month ago. She noted that a lot of work needs to be done on the federal level, specifically the reauthorization of the VRA. “I would love to see the John Lewis Voting Rights Act passed, or any other legislation that would make it easier for people to vote rather than harder.”

“I’m on the Armed Services Committee and you’re looking for opportunities to make it easier for our servicemen and women to vote,” she added, also pointing out that she can help her constituents remain informed about statewide elections. 

McClellan isn’t naive, however, to the political reality of the House with Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as speaker. Coming from a state characterized by its narrowly divided government and shifting partisan control over the past decade, McClellan is no stranger to navigating difficult legislative environments.

“What I learned in my 14 years in the minority in the state Legislature is how to listen,” she underscored. “Everybody’s political views and their perspective on policy is shaped by their life experience and what they know,” which has led her to share her own perspective and family stories. “When you do that, you can tell where can we find common ground and start from there and go as far as you can.” 

“More importantly,” McClellan continued, “you find out where you will never find common ground.” In her view, certain goals, like reauthorizing the federal VRA, might require waiting until Democrats regain the majority. “Keep pushing no matter what,” she made a point to add.

McClellan has a mentor on the other side of the Capitol helping guide her through this new environment. Now-Sen. Kaine (D-Va.) witnessed her political organizing in Richmond, policymaking in the state Legislature and now, serving as his colleague in Virginia’s congressional delegation. (He even officiated her wedding.)

“Jenn is a strong defender of voting rights, a great public servant, and a longtime personal friend,” Kaine wrote in a comment to Democracy Docket. “She did incredible work in the Virginia Legislature…and I know she’ll continue to be a champion for democracy in the House of Representatives.” 

Kaine concluded with a sentiment that could only come from a resident of Virginia’s 4th Congressional District: “I’m glad she’s my Congresswoman.”