Those measures are part of sweeping bills that would overhaul Virginia’s early-voting system after changes enacted on a temporary basis last year proved widely popular. They now head to Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who is expected to sign them into law by a Sunday deadline.
The bills also aim to fix the confusion that happened on election night when large chunks of absentee votes were tabulated very late, leaving only in-person totals, which reflected an incomplete outcome.
That created what Del. Schuyler T. VanValkenburg (D-Henrico) dubbed the “Mark Warner problem”: Television networks called U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) the victor in his race shortly after polls closed Nov. 3, based on exit polling. But by late that night, the results of in-person voting still showed Republican nominee Daniel Gade in the lead because huge absentee totals weren’t reported yet.
“The average voter wants to see the votes come in on election night,” said VanValkenburg, who sponsored the House’s version of the omnibus absentee voting bill.
Its provisions would separate early in-person voting from absentee ballots and allow local registrars to process the in-person votes earlier. Absentee votes also could be tabulated starting earlier on Election Day.
The House version of the bill includes several other technical changes, including clarifying policy that allows someone to cast a provisional ballot if they register absentee but decide to vote in person and making it easier to get on the permanent absentee voter rolls.
“We ought to be about making it as easy as possible to exercise the franchise so that as many people as are eligible can participate in the vote,” said Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), who sponsored the Senate version of the bill. Last year’s temporary changes “just changed the game completely,” he said, leading to a historic turnout.
Virginia only passed no-excuse absentee voting last year, after Democrats took control of both chambers of the General Assembly. Republicans have resisted the changes, arguing that they open the door to fraud.
The Senate also gave final passage on Tuesday to a bill that waives the requirement for having another person witness the signature on an absentee ballot if a public health emergency has been declared.
Sponsored by Sen. Barbara A. Favola (D-Fairfax), the bill originally removed the witness requirement completely, but lawmakers instead ordered the state Department of Elections to study alternative methods for ensuring the authenticity of an absentee ballot so they can revisit the issue.
Other bills aimed at expanding access to the polls passed earlier in the session, including a measure that opens up in-person early voting on Sundays.
A state version of the Voting Rights Act also passed earlier this month, enshrining protections for minority voters into state law in case federal safeguards ever change.
That measure makes it more difficult for localities to pass last-minute changes that would limit access to polling places, such as closing locations or limiting hours, and gives advocacy groups greater standing to sue localities for infringing on voters’ rights.
“At a time when so many states are making it harder to vote, we are living up to the ideals of democracy, ensuring that all people have a voice,” VanValkenburg said.