First Look: VA General Assembly to tackle absentee ballots and elections

Capitol Connection
primary voting

The polling location at the Richmond Main Street Library on June 8, 2021. (Photo: 8News Delaney Hall)

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — As state legislators prepare for the first General Assembly session of 2022, a number of bills have already been filed that address election issues.

Accusations of voter fraud and turmoil over the expansion of absentee ballots played a huge role in the 2020 presidential election — and some legislation filed ahead of the upcoming General Assembly session may reignite those partisan conflicts.

Absentee Voting

Absentee voting was greatly expanded in 2020 and 2021 as states struggled to handle the COVID-19 pandemic.

Virginia was one of the state’s to expand absentee voting, with Democrats approving ‘no-excuse’ absentee ballots, which made voting early and by mail available to all Virginians. That drew the opposition of some Republicans, and Republican legislators are now advancing legislation designed to roll back aspects of that expansion.

HB 35 would eliminate ‘no-excuse’ absentee voting, reinstating requirements designed to make absentee voting available only to voters who would not otherwise be able to make it to their local precinct. HB 149 would require witnesses to absentee ballots to provide identifying information such as their social security number, or otherwise risk having the ballot discounted.

HB 34, also patroned by Republican Delegate Ronnie Campbell, and HB 178 would ban drop-off locations for completed absentee ballots, essentially requiring them to be delivered by mail or directly to a registrar.

HB 39 would reduce the time period during which in-person absentee voting, also known as early voting, could occur from a period of 45 days prior to an election down to 14 days prior to an election.

According to data from VPAP, more than 1 million Virginians voted by mail or early in-person during last year’s governor’s race. That accounted for about a third of the total votes cast in that election.

Election Fraud

Republicans have also filed legislation to increase the stringency of voter identification and ballot security. Similar measures have been adopted in Republican-led states across the U.S., but while Republicans say the measures are designed to combat voter fraud, Democrats say they’re little more than voter suppression.

HB 24 and HB 46 would implement a photo ID requirement at voting precincts. Currently Virginia voters can use non-photo ID, such as a birth certificate or utility bill in their name, to cast their vote. The bills would also repeal language allowing voters to use expired driver’s licenses to vote.

Republican State Senator Amanda Chase is patron on SB 133, a bill that would require Virginia ballots to add a number of security features, including holographic foil, “banknote-level security,” or high-quality security watermarks, in addition to a barcode allowing voters to track their ballots.

Chase has repeatedly pushed debunked claims of election fraud, and was censured by the State Senate for her comments on the Jan. 6 insurrection on Capitol Hill.

Republicans are also putting forward two bills, HB 187 and HB 185, that would repeal election-day voter registration.

Bipartisanship?

One piece of major elections legislation has netted both a democratic and a Republican patron. HB 71, patroned by Republican Lee Ware and Democrat Sally Hudson, would ban campaign contributions from public utilities – like Dominion Energy, one of the biggest political donors in the state.

The proposal may lead to unusual divisions in the General Assembly, as prominent establishment Democrats and Republicans alike have banded together in the past to defeat similar legislation, while Hudson and Ware’s co-signature suggests they may be seeking an alliance across the aisle.

The Democrats’ largest piece of election legislation is HB 130, which would start the process for an amendment referendum enshrining the right to vote in the Virginia Constitution. The proposed amendment, which would go on the ballot to get the voters’ approval, would also restore the right to vote automatically to felons after the completion of their prison term.

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