RICHMOND, Va. – State senators deferred action on a slew of bills that could change when and how Virginians can vote on Friday.
The Democratic proposals, which already passed in the House of Delegates, aim to increase turnout ahead of a contentious presidential election. If these bills become law, most are expected to take effect in July 2020.
“It’s a fundamental principle of democracy that people exercise their vote,” said House Majority Leader Charniele Herring (D-46). “It makes for better government, more representative government and so it’s really not a partisan issue.”
Some Republicans have concerns about loosening the reins on the process. Sen. Frank Ruff (R-15) voted against a number of the bills in the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee.
“I’m concerned that we have integrity at the ballot box,” Ruff said. “The wider the window you make the greater the opportunity for someone to play mischief.”
Gov. Ralph Northam’s office didn’t definitively say if he would sign off on these bills but, in a statement, a spokesperson reaffirmed his commitment to make participating in democracy easier.
“It’s not rocket science,” Ruff said when asked if any changes could be made to improve the system. “The problem is that people don’t understand that they are part of the process so they don’t go vote. Sure you can get many many more people to register but getting them to the polls is a little more difficult.”
Bills being contested include…
- HB1 would allow anyone registered to vote by absentee ballot. Currently, people need to choose an excuse deemed acceptable by the Department of Elections to be entitled to vote absentee. The bill passed the House with a 65-35 vote and was passed by for the day on Friday in the Senate.
- HB19 permits a voter who doesn’t show a required form of identification at the polls to sign a statement claiming to be a registered voter. Making a false statement would be punishable as a Class 5 felony. The bill passed the House on a 57-43 vote and was passed by for the day on Friday in the Senate.
- HB207 would allow any registered voter to apply to be put on a permanent absentee voter list. A voter would be taken off the list if they move to an address outside of the county or city they are registered in. If the bill becomes law, it would not become effective until July 1, 2021. The bill passed the House on a 53-46 vote and was passed by for the day on Friday in the Senate.
- HB213 would add out-of-state student ID cards from an institution of higher education to the list of acceptable forms of identification. Currently, only in-state student ID cards are allowed. The bill passed the House with a 57-41 vote and was passed by for the day on Friday in the Senate.
- HB220 would require the envelope provided to an absentee voter for the return of the absentee ballot to include prepaid postage. The bill passed the House with a 60-38 vote and was passed by for the day on Friday in the Senate.
- HB235 would automatically register people to vote by allowing the Department of Motor Vehicles to send personal information to the Department of Elections unless otherwise specified. This would apply to people coming to the DMV or using the department’s website for a variety of reasons, including renewing a driver’s license or changing an address. The bill passed the House with a 54-45 vote and was passed by for the day on Friday in the Senate.
- HB240 allows any person eligible for an absentee ballot to file a special annual application to receive ballots for all elections within a calendar year. Currently, this option is only available to those eligible to vote absentee due to a long-term disability or illness. The bill passed the House unanimously but faced opposition in the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee. It was passed by for the day on Friday.
Bills that passed with unanimous support include…
- HB238 would extend the deadline for the return of an absentee ballot to the general registrar. It would allow ballots by registered voters to be counted if they’re received before noon on the third day after an election if they’re postmarked on or before the day of an election.
- HB239 would adjust the deadline for a voter to apply for an absentee ballot to be submitted by mail from the seventh day before an election to the eleventh day before.
- HB242 creates a process for a qualified voter to vote absentee if an emergency prevents them from voting on Election day or from meeting the application deadline. The bill passed with unanimous support in the House but was passed by for the day on Friday in the Senate.