RICHMOND — After the November election, legislators knew changes to Virginia’s election laws were in order.
Democrats and Republicans had differing views of what those changes should be.
Encouraged by a presidential election with high voter turnout, Democrats are working to codify many of the changes the state put into place for the pandemic that broadened ballot access. At the same time, they are chastising Republicans who want to roll back those changes on the basis of restoring “election integrity,” saying they shouldn’t cast doubt on voting measures that don’t contribute to widespread fraud.
The Democrat-controlled General Assembly is considering several bills, such as repealing the requirement that a witness must sign an absentee ballot a voter sends in the mail, prepaid postage sent out with absentee ballots, and allowing people the opportunity to fix technical errors with their absentee ballots so they aren’t invalidated.
The legislation follows significant changes Democrats made to expanding voting access last year, including expanding early voting and repealing the requirement someone must show a form of identification with a photo to vote.
“Those changes marked a pretty big shift in how we do election law,” said Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, who is carrying bills this year to make some temporary pandemic-specific changes permanent.
Much of the legislation Democrats are advancing hasn’t received the support of Republicans, who argue the measures open the election system up to fraud or perceptions of fraud — a problem worsened by former President Donald Trump’s false claims about voter fraud.
During a Senate floor debate over a proposal to scrap the witness signature on an absentee ballot being mailed in, Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, said he didn’t believe the signature was a barrier, and eliminating it eroded voter confidence in the election system.
“The issue is not so much whether there are documented cases of voter fraud, but the real issue is the confidence of the American people and the integrity of the election system,” he said. “I’ve been saying that before the last president in the White House, so don’t accuse me of parroting what he said.”
Democrats have defended their proposals by saying there isn’t research showing they contribute to voter fraud and that they do eliminate hurdles for certain people to vote. Virginia election officials have said there has been no evidence of widespread voter fraud in Virginia in the November election.
Democrats are seeking to permit registrars to place drop boxes for voters to drop off ballots. The boxes are typically under video surveillance or guarded. Prior to last year, some states had drop boxes for years and didn’t have major problems with them.
Del. Les Adams, R-Pittsylvania, said he was unsure the boxes should be used beyond the pandemic because of “security” concerns people have with them.
“People have doubts because the Republican Party sowed doubts,” VanValkenberg told him. “The issue isn’t with the drop boxes, which are secure, which have the mechanisms for security.”
“Election integrity” was the theme of nearly all of the proposals from Republicans.
“This would just be voter integrity,” Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, told a Senate panel about his bill requiring registrars to check Social Security numbers of people who register to vote.
Sen. Jen Kiggans, R-Virginia Beach, said her proposal to have state registrars get a weekly rather than monthly list of people who die to update voter rolls was an “election integrity bill.”
Sen. Tommy Norment, R-James City, wanted to restore the photo ID requirement and require signatures on absentee ballots to “maintain integrity.”
“I do not believe the election was stolen,” he emphasized.
When Del. Margaret Ransone, R-Westmoreland, presented a bill to a House subcommittee about publishing information about voting on a state website to “eliminate confusion with election law,” Democrats pressed her on the source of that confusion.
“It seems like much of the confusion was sown by your side of the aisle, I hate to say, and especially the president,” Del. Paul Krizek, D-Fairfax, told her.
Krizek said he was “dubious” of any bills coming from Republicans after the way Trump and other elected Republicans spread lies and misinformation about voting to cast doubt on the result.
“When you come in here and say there’s a lot of confusion, that’s because major members of your caucus have sown that confusion,” VanValkenberg said. It’s not even about President Trump. So to come in and say there’s confusion and put in a bill to stop confusion, why don’t you guys stop sowing confusion.”
Republicans in Virginia’s legislature largely stayed silent — at least publicly — while Trump spread misinformation about the election. But prior to Congress certifying President Joe Biden’s Electoral College win, Dels. Ronnie Campbell of Rockbridge, Mark Cole of Spotsylvania and David LaRock of Loudoun sent a letter to then-Vice President Mike Pence asking him to overturn Virginia’s electoral votes.
Democrats defeated most of the election bills from Republicans.
There have been a few bipartisan opportunities. A bill from Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News, to establish uniform minimum standards for curbside voting won unanimous support in the House of Delegates. Colleen Miller, executive director of the Disability Law Center, said a survey of 400 Virginia polling locations in November showed 85% of them had some obstacle for people with disabilities, and the top challenge was insufficient curbside voting.
Republicans are also backing a proposal from Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, to set standards for processing and counting absentee ballots received before Election Day to address the issue of what lawmakers have referred to as the “late-night swing.”
What happened was ballots cast in person on Election Day were counted and the results quickly posted online after polls closed, which showed Republicans with a comfortable lead. Because some local election offices didn’t feed most of the substantial number of absentee ballots into the machines until Election Day, it caused a delay in those results being posted. So when the absentee results displayed online, in some races, the Democrat suddenly flipped to the lead. It confused a lot of people observing the election results who were not informed about how votes were counted.
“I think that uniformity will provide a more consistent result and give people more faith in the result,” Deeds said.