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Virginia lawmakers advance absentee voting measures

Election 2020 Washington Mail Voting
Posted at 5:21 PM, Aug 24, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-24 18:16:52-04

RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia lawmakers are advancing proposals aimed at making absentee voting easier amid the coronavirus pandemic. The recommendations include having the state prepay postage, setting up drop boxes and establishing a process for voters to fix paperwork issues on improperly submitted ballots.

Democratic-led committees in the state House and Senate advanced the measures Monday, over objections from Republicans who say they're concerned about cost and ballot security.

States around the country are expecting a big jump in voting by mail this fall amid the coronavirus threat.

Most the contention during a Senate hearing Monday morning focused on the drop box provision of the bill, which would allow voters to return absentee ballots to specific locations up to and on election day, November 3rd. The proposal directs the Virginia Department of Elections to develop and implement security and collection requirements for the sites.

Democrats argued providing expanded options for absentee returns during a deadly pandemic that’s already infected more than 113,000 Virginia is the best method of assisting vulnerable voters, concerned for their safety around crowded polling locations, to still cast a ballot.

“Covid-19 is unprecedented, and the vary populations that are more at risk of getting it and dying are the ones who have a hard time getting their votes counted,” said Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond).

Both the House and Senate measures would allocate $2 million from the state’s general fund to local registrars to reimburse them for the cost of sending voters pre-paid return envelopes for absentee ballots. The bill would require registrars to notify voters who filled out absentee paperwork incorrectly and allow the voter to fix the error up to three days after November 3rd and still have their ballot counted.

Virginia Republicans raised alarm bells at the proposal. Senator Stephen Newman (R-Botetourt) said the lack of protections, with the drop box provision in particular, would set up the “biggest invitation for voter fraud” the state has ever seen.

After questioning from Newman, legal advisors to the Senate said third-party organization could be allowed to collect and return absentee ballots. Republicans said Virginia election law has long established there should not be an intermediary between the voter and the ballot box. Senate Republicans tried to introduce amendments that would make returning an absentee ballot that is not your to a drop box location a felony; however, it was defeated.

Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Hanover) said there are other ways of making sure voters and the vote are protected during the pandemic.

“Certainly, we can do absentee ballots and have people send it back in. Certainly, you can go to a polling place and not get out of your car. We did that during the primary. We have done that,” McDougle said. ““Voting is key. Making sure it’s secure and done properly is equally as key.”

In response to the claims of potential for voter fraud, Sen. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) said the bill was based off best practices in 30 other states where similar policies are already in effect. In those states, there is “no overwhelming evidence” of voter fraud of any kind, Deeds said.

Sen. McClellan said the bill is a “very narrow measure” that alters the appropriations bill, so any potential changes would only apply to this upcoming election. During a global health emergency, McClellan said providing voters with options to safely and securely exercise their franchise is vital.

“There are a lot of people, particularly in communities that I represent, who are worried about the post office delivering their ballot,” she said. “Voting is not that complicated, and there have been a lot of people working on this for a long time, all of our election officials, to make sure this can happen efficiently and safely.”

After clearing committees, both the House and Senate are expected to take up the bills later this week.

Absentee voting for the November election begins September 18th. The deadline to request an absentee ballot by mail is October 23rd. The deadline to register to vote, should you need to, is October 13th.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.