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Virginia Democrats Advance Changes to Absentee Voting

A ballot drop box in Henrico County
Democrats are advancing legislation that would make some changes from the November 2020 election permanent, including ballot drop boxes. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Democrats in the General Assembly neared the finish line on legislation that they say will make absentee voting more accessible. The legislation approved by the state Senate on Friday also aims to speed up the processing of early votes. 

Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg (D-Henrico)’s bill calls for registrars to finish processing mail-in absentee ballots at noon on Election Day rather than waiting until after polls close at 7 p.m. VanValkenburg said the change would help avoid the situation that occurred in Virginia where absentee ballots weren’t reported until late on election night, causing elections to seem to swing in favor of Democrats who’d garnered many absentee votes.

It also makes some temporary changes from the November election permanent. The legislation requires localities to provide ballot drop boxes that were optional in the November vote. If a voter makes a mistake that would stop their ballot from being counted, election officials would have to let them know and give them the chance to fix it. Mail-in ballots would also be required to come with prepaid postage.

The bill requires a ballot marking tool with screen reader assistive technology to be made available for absentee voters with a print disability.

Republicans have consistently voted against the bill. Some previously argued dropboxes could lead to fraud or accusations of fraud despite the lack of evidence to support the claims. A report released earlier this month by the Department of Elections called the November election “the most safe, secure, and successful” vote in the history of the state.

The League of Women Voters of Virginia, which helped craft the legislation, applauded its passage.

“When Virginians vote, our democracy is stronger," Deb Wake, the League’s president, said in a statement. "Convenient absentee ballot drop-off reduces lines at the polls and increases voter engagement."

A companion bill is expected to pass the House of Delegates early next week before going to Governor Ralph Northam.

The state Senate also advanced legislation from Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico) that permits electoral boards to offer absentee voting on Sundays and a bill from Del. Aflonso Lopez (D-Arlington) that allows people aged 16 and older to pre-register to vote. 

Both bills passed the Senate in party-line votes.

Earlier this week, House Democrats defeated a Republican proposal on absentee voting that garnered near-unanimous support in the Senate. It would have required localities to parcel out absentee votes by precinct rather than lumping them all in one bucket. Advocates said it would help improve transparency for skeptical voters, but House Democrats argued they needed more time to determine how to implement it and instead proposed a work group to study the issue.

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