RICHMOND — Some Republican elections officials expressed concern Tuesday over a practice both major parties are using to streamline the process of signing up absentee voters, saying it encourages voter fraud.
Earlier this year, members of the state Board of Elections said that voters may sign absentee-ballot request forms electronically instead of printing the forms, signing them with a pen and e-mailing back a scan or mailing the forms through the post office. The change allows voters to skip the step of printing the forms.
That guidance was offered during a contentious primary this summer, when House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) set up a secure Web site to make it easier for voters to request absentee ballots electronically.
But the practice has raised a red flag now that Del. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax) is using a similar site to sign up voters as he goes door to door seeking support for his state Senate bid in a district that includes Fairfax, Prince William and Stafford counties. Surovell said he has helped hundreds of voters apply for absentee ballots because they are pregnant, caring for sick loved ones or face some other circumstance that could keep them from getting to the polls.
That has some GOP election officials worried. At a state Board of Elections meeting Tuesday, Clara Belle Wheeler, a Republican member of the board, said a person could easily use an online portal to pose as a voter seeking an absentee ballot.
“That scares me,” she said. “I think we need to define a signature in a more constructive way. A typed name is not a signature. And we have the authority to clean this up.”
But Surovell told the elections board that the process opens more opportunities for people to vote.
“These are just some of the 853 people who are going to be able to vote thanks to the speaker and thanks to your action,” Surovell told the board. Concerns about fraud amount to “paranoia and people chasing ghosts who do not exist,” he said.
The Board of Elections decided Tuesday that it will revisit what constitutes an electronic signature after the November elections.
Asked whether online portals could encourage voter fraud, Howell spokesman Matt Moran said only that the Howell campaign has followed the law. Only 17 voters used Howell’s online portal to request absentee ballots in the primary, Stafford County Registrar Greg Riddlemoser said.
A lawyer for state Democrats called criticism at Tuesday’s meeting a partisan move intended to restrict ballot access and disenfranchise voters.
“These Republicans want one set of rules when Speaker Howell tries to mobilize his supporters and now are demanding an entirely different set of voting rules apply when Democrats do the same,” Georgina Cannan said.
The situation upends the typical positions of Democrats and Republicans on measures to make voting easier.
Nationally and in Virginia, Republicans have sought strict requirements that voters present photo identification at the polls, a fail-safe that they say is meant to prevent voter fraud and instill confidence in the voting process.
Democrats and voting rights advocates say such efforts are politically motivated attempts to suppress the votes of the poor, the elderly and others who are more likely to support Democrats and less likely to have valid photo IDs.
The issue of absentee ballots and electronic signatures surfaced this year when Howell’s primary campaign asked the Board of Elections to clarify a law regarding requests for absentee ballots.
In May, the board resolved unanimously that voters may submit absentee-ballot requests electronically. That gave Howell and other campaigns and political committees the go-ahead to set up Web portals to make it easier for voters to request absentee ballots.
At the time, Howell’s opponent, Susan Stimpson, accused him of gaining an unfair advantage by receiving guidance on the absentee ballot rules — she called it a change in the rules — without her knowledge. Events played out in a public Board of Elections meeting.
In practice, when candidates and campaign staffers go door to door seeking support, they have been able to sign up voters on the spot using a cellphone or tablet. The portal then automatically sends a request to the Department of Elections, where staffers manually compare the request to records. If everything checks out, the department sends the voter a ballot by mail. The voter completes the ballot and returns it by mail.
Kevin Reynolds, an aide to state Sen. Thomas A. Garrett Jr. (R-Buckingham), said that electronic signatures “could facilitate and encourage nefarious types” to break the law. He added that he objects only to typed signatures, not signatures marked with a stylus or finger on a touch screen.
Steve Hunt, chairman of the Fairfax County Electoral Board and a Republican former Fairfax County School Board member, said he also worries about potential voter fraud.
“If you’re filling out the form for the voter, it’s a very short step to start filling out the form without a voter,” Hunt said, adding that he spoke for himself only.
Ahead of the general election, the Republican Party of Virginia created a site similar to Howell’s.
Aneesh Chopra, President Obama’s pick to be the nation’s first chief technology officer, said he used campaign cash he raised after his unsuccessful 2013 bid for lieutenant governor to develop an open-source site for Surovell and other Democrats.