By: Kira Simon
Elections have consequences. After flipping both chambers of the state legislature, Democrats in Virginia got to work updating the state’s election laws. By the end of January, the state legislature passed laws that will make significant changes to how Virginians vote – especially how they vote absentee.
First, the House of Delegates passed a bill that would do away with the current requirement that voters meet one of the 20 pre-approved excuses to be allowed to vote absentee – allowing residents to vote absentee without an excuse. The Senate passed a bill with the same change earlier in the week. This will make it easier for Virginians to vote, and hopefully increase turnout.
Second, the House extended the window in which the state will accept mailed absentee ballots – shifting the deadline from close of polls on Election Day to noon the Friday after an election (with ballots postmarked by Election Day). This is a huge win for people who vote absentee by mail – in 2018, nearly 7,000 absentee ballots were received by mail after the close-of-polls deadline. Third, the House made it easier to apply for absentee ballots in subsequent elections. People who vote absentee once may need to vote absentee again, especially if they have an illness or disability that prevents them from voting in-person.
Although the bills will need to be reconciled between the two chambers before they make it to Governor Ralph Northam’s desk, with full-party control of the state government that should not be an issue. Governor Northam previously voiced his support for expanding voting rights in Virginia, and can be expected to sign the legislation into law. This legislation is especially notable given multiple recent state legislative races that ended with controversies over absentee ballots.
In 2017, a House of Delegates race in Newport News came down to absentee ballots, and after multiple recounts, a judge declared it a tie. The race was decided by pulling a name from a bowl, and the Republican was declared the winner. If the Democrat, Shelly Simonds, had won, the House would have been tied 50-50, allowing the Democratic lieutenant governor to break tie votes. Two years later, Simonds won the race for that seat – and not by having her name pulled out of a bowl. In January 2020, she voted for all five measures to expand absentee voting.
The other notable 2017 race that involved absentee ballots was in Stafford County. Fifty-five absentee ballots were held late in error at a postal service facility. As a result, those absentee ballots were not counted when they arrived at the registrar’s office a day after the election. Although the ballots would not have been determinative for the outcome of that race, it sure was close – the Republican candidate won by eighty-two votes.
Given these recent situations, it makes sense that once Democrats secured a unified government in Virginia, they would work to expand absentee ballot laws. This expansion is not just a win for Democrats, but a win for all Virginia voters. Virginians will no longer have to worry about qualifying for a pre-approved excuse to vote absentee, worry quite as much about whether the postal service will deliver their ballot by close of polls, or re-apply to vote absentee in every election.