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Early Signs of Consensus on No-Excuse Absentee Voting

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Committees in the House of Delegates and Senate advanced bills on Tuesday that would allow absentee voting without an excuse.

The move surprised Democrats, who have been pushing the bills for over a decade.

In the Senate, the elections committee rolled several bills into one offered by Sen. Lionell Spruill’s (D-Chesapeake). That bill included some changes put forward by Republicans, including a delayed start until the November 2020 elections to allow time for a study on implementing it. Spurill said he was fine with the delay if it allowed the issue to clear the committee.

“Of course, we’re all up for re-election this year,” he said. “[Republicans] seem to think it favors Democrats if we do it now.”

Voters would still need an excuse until the second Saturday immediately preceding election Election Day, at which point they could vote absentee in person without providing an excuse until the following Saturday.

The House bill, sponsored by Republican Del. Mark Rush (R-Christiansburg), is similar but doesn’t include the study.

Both bills cleared their respective committees with bipartisan support.

Sen. John Cosgrove (R-Chesapeake) was among the Republicans who had backed the Senate bill.

“I would just say I have never voted for one of these bills before,” he said. “Ever. My entire time in the House of Delegates. My entire time in the Senate. But this is my brother Lionell Spruill and I’m going to vote for his bill.”

Republicans in the Senate committee rejected a more far-reaching early voting proposal from Sen. Richard Stuart (R-Westmoreland), with Democrats siding with a visibly annoyed Stuart. Republicans cited concerns from registrars in having enough time and resources to implement Stuart's bill, but Stuart said he thought registrars could handle any extra influx of voters. 

“I believe in this,” Stuart said. “I really think we need to take this leap now.”

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.