Election Law Changes: Sept. 17 is Now Key Date

Photo from Henrico Citizen

by Steve Haner

If the current COVID-19 surge continues into the fall, and Governor Ralph Northam once again declares a health emergency, absentee ballots returned by mail will not need a witness signature. Now it will be by General Assembly fiat, not a judge’s order.

That alone ought to motivate a bunch of hesitant Republicans to rush out and get their vaccines to crush this surge. It is probably the same subset of people who continue to simmer over all the election law changes that were pushed through as “temporary” pandemic adjustments, and now are considered sacred and untouchable human rights.

Here we go again, Virginia: Another major election with a host of rule changes, some new this year. A year ago fewer than half the votes were cast in precincts on election day and there is every reason to expect the same pattern this year. Now the Republicans are also pushing early voting.

You may see some new people in the polls. In the wake of the complaints about 2020, several conservative groups have banded together to conduct sessions to recruit and train more party poll watchers and encourage more to become sworn election officers. Ideally and in compliance with law, the teams working inside the precincts on election day or in the registrar’s offices processing absentee ballots should include comparable numbers of party representatives.

If the recruitment efforts are successful, more partisan balance may result. With that, confidence in the outcomes may return, because in general Virginia’s process has enjoyed a good reputation. Actual partisan poll watchers, sitting behind the check in tables or watching the ballots being handled, have been rare in many places. Becoming a poll watcher is as easy as being named by that party’s local chairman.

Early voting in person beings Friday, September 17, anywhere your registrar wants to do it. Virginia’s 45 days of early voting (let’s stop calling it “absentee”) is the longest period in the nation. Plenty of states still have none (including apparent Jim Crow bastions north of the Mason-Dixon Line).

For those who do apply for and receive a mailed absentee ballot, now needing to cite no reason why they cannot vote on November 2, their locality will offer at least one but probably several unsupervised drop box locations. The local registrar picks the locations and is responsible for gathering the ballots each evening.

Virginia law used to allow you to deliver only your own or an immediate family member’s absentee ballot. Drop boxes are wide open, in effect vote harvesting depositories if somebody desires.

You can mail your ballot for free. This year, a new development, the envelopes will be postage paid. (A legislator last winter told the General Assembly his daughter at the University of Virginia didn’t know how to obtain a stamp. Wahoos. What can you do?)

Another change: Every locality now holds and counts absentee ballots in a central absentee precinct. Votes will be processed in batches as they come in, so there will not be a crush on election day. Votes postmarked by election day will continue to be counted until noon on the Friday after the election. At least the Virginia courts have ruled that there must indeed be an actual postmark.

Democratic state legislators fled Texas recently to stop passage of election law changes there, leading to complaints that passage of the bills in question return the Jim Crow Era. Well, they should be protesting in Richmond, because even Virginia’s majority Democrats have not approved the practices those Texas Democrats are desperate to maintain.

There is no place in Virginia where early voting is available 24 hours a day, as it was in the Houston area last year. There is no place in Virginia where drive-through voting is allowed, basically guaranteeing that one or more other people can be watching the voters as they fill in their ballots. Nobody can peek into the voting booth in Virginia without a witnessed affidavit that the voter requests assistance.

If states without those voting options are bastions of overt racism, then Virginia remains one. But that’s ridiculous, as are the grandstanding Texas Democrats and their fans. Our General Assembly did, however, authorize (it’s an option) early voting hours on Sunday. The detested GOP Texas bills mandate more early voting hours per day than Virginia ever has.

Under the old law you could ask to be put on the absentee voter list for all elections in a year, and the ballots would appear in your mail automatically. That year only. The General Assembly has now made that carry forward into other years, and once on you must seek to be removed. That is an open door that may eventually widen into a major ballot security problem, if people who’ve moved or died stay on that list.

Virginia now has a more explicit cure process for absentee ballots with errors. Registrars will open the outer envelope and inspect the inner envelope that holds the actual ballot. If a signature or address is missing, the voter is notified and given four days to come in and fix the issue. The ballot itself should remain sealed until it is opened by the central absentee precinct staff.

There is absolutely no legal requirement for registrars to seek partisan parity among their own staff, but they will likely need additional people to help with the daily early voting and the regular meetings of the central absentee precinct. They could try to achieve some balance there, and in any case poll watchers are allowed to observe both processes.

This will be the second year that voters are not required to provide any actual identification to vote if they instead sign an affidavit. That is another reason to early vote yourself, to prevent showing up on election day and being told you’ve already done so.

Virginia has a group of “protected” voters who do not need to have their addresses on the voting records and can check in with a post office box address. Most are judges, police, or somebody under an active protective order. It used to be hard to get on that list, but a 2020 bill basically lets anybody claim that status without providing any actual evidence they live under a threat. Expect that to grow.

There are other changes. This is already an unusually long post. The Attorney General’s new role as voting rights judge, jury and executioner deserves its own discussion. Next year we get a major problem: People allowed to register and vote on election day itself — no registration deadline.

In two years under cover of COVID the General Assembly has radically opened and loosened our process. Real problems are very likely unless the efforts to recruit more poll watchers and improve balance among precinct election officers are successful. An imbalance in favor of either party is problematic. As with so many things, if you care, it is time to get up off the couch and act.