VA House passes bill to keep some pandemic election changes; Republican leader casts doubt on results

Virginia

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- On the eve of President-Elect Joe Biden’s Inauguration, Virginia’s House of Delegates passed a bill to maintain various changes to election law that made it safer to vote during the coronavirus pandemic.

Meanwhile, House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert cited these changes as the cause of doubt in the election’s outcome. In a call with reporters on Tuesday, Gilbert also refused to condemn a letter sent by his fellow caucus members asking Vice President Mike Pence to nullify the state’s certified election results.

“They were merely asking for a delay so that some of the discrepancies that were very prominently displayed across the country could be investigated,” Gilbert said when asked if he saw anything wrong with the letter. “I think what’s more important is the environment and the context in which a letter like that was written, which is one where doubt rained across the nation.”

Judges and election officials across the country have repeatedly rejected claims of widespread voter fraud.

Kunal Atit, a spokesperson for Virginia House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, criticized Gilbert’s comments in a statement.

“It is disappointing that while the effort to undermine our democracy and spread misinformation about our electoral system has drawn condemnation from across the political spectrum, Leader Gilbert has no problem with members of his caucus seeking to disenfranchise Virginians and peddling the same falsehoods that ultimately led to the riots at the Capitol. It is our hope that Leader Gilbert will reconsider his support for these dangerous conspiracies that have caused so much harm over these past weeks.”

Kunal Atit, spokesperson for House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn

The debate came on the same day that Republican gubernatorial candidate and state Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Chesterfield) was stripped of her only committee assignment for her role in “instigating an insurrection against the United States.”

If passed by the Senate, the bill sponsored by Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg (D-Henrico) would continue pre-paid postage and codify designated ‘drop boxes’ for absentee ballots. It would also establish a process allowing voters to ‘cure’ errors to mail-in ballots. Previously, VanValkenburg said many of these votes would’ve been discarded.

These measures were among those approved temporarily by the General Assembly in 2020.

“Other states and the federal government can look to Virginia when trying to promote a healthy democracy and accessible and transparent elections,” VanValkenburg said in a statement.

Another bill by Sen. Barbara Favola (D-Arlington) seeks to repeal a requirement that an absentee ballot be opened in the presence of a witness and signed by such witness.

The change was initially forced in August of 2020. A lawsuit from the League of Women Voters of Virginia argued it was necessary to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 exposure.

Now, Favola thinks a permanent policy shift is necessary to ensure voter privacy.

“I think it’s time Virginia move into the 21st century. Only eight states still require a witness signature,” Favola said. “Our obligation is to empower as many people as possible to participate in this great Democracy.”

Gilbert said these changes will continue to undermine faith in democracy if they’re signed into law.

“It’s obvious that Democrats want to loosen the rules that assisted them in the last election and that so greatly contributed to undermining confidence in the election,” he said.

Gilbert said his party introduced several bills to ‘restore faith’ in elections but many were killed in a House sub-committee on Tuesday morning.

One proposal would’ve set stricter information-sharing standards for those who witness the opening of an absentee ballot, requiring them to provide a signature, a printed name and an address.

Another would’ve mandated verification of voter signatures before an absentee ballot could be counted. Opponents argued election officials aren’t qualified to do this work and that the change could disenfranchise voters whose penmanship has changed due to age, disability or injury.

Several proposals by Republican Del. Margaret Ransone (R-Westermoreland) were also shot down by Democrats on Tuesday. One would’ve forced election officials to disclose donations and other gifts. A separate bill would’ve forced the Virginia Department of Elections to post changes to election law online within 24 hours of sending new guidance to localities.

“I’m bringing this bill to bring transparency to our elections,” Ransone said.

“When you come in here and say there is a lot of confusion, well that might be because major members of your caucus have sown that confusion,” VanValkenburg countered.

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