RICHMOND — The head of Virginia’s elections board on Tuesday postponed action on a plan that would let people registering to vote skip questions about their citizenship and criminal history, saying it needs to be reworked.
James Alcorn, chairman of the Virginia State Board of Elections, said in an e-mail to fellow elections officials that he was pulling the proposal from the board’s September agenda. At the same time, he asserted there was still a need to revamp existing voter registration forms, which seem to routinely trip up would-be voters.
The move puts off action on a seemingly arcane administrative matter that hit a nerve with Republicans on the hot-button issues of illegal immigration, voter fraud and the restoration of felons’ right to vote.
Hundreds of people flocked to a board meeting two weeks ago to oppose making questions about citizenship and felony convictions optional on voter registration forms. They said the change would make it easier for felons and illegal immigrants to vote fraudulently and suggested that Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) was seeking to pump up Democratic voter rolls in the crucial swing state ahead of the 2016 presidential elections.
When the plan became public just ahead of the July meeting, McAuliffe’s spokesman referred questions about it to the Department of Elections. Officials there said the proposal was meant to help otherwise qualified voters who simply forgot to check a box or two on the form.
“The recommendation by the State Board of Elections produced a healthy debate, and the opportunity for public comment has provided a beneficial exchange of viewpoints,” McAuliffe spokeswoman Christina Nuckols said in an e-mail Tuesday. “The Governor has closely followed the discussion and he will continue to do so during the upcoming analysis of this issue.”
The proposal would allow people registering to vote to skip several questions on the application, including those asking whether they are U.S. citizens or felons whose voting rights have not been restored. They would still have to affirm, by signing the form, that they are citizens and otherwise eligible.
Currently, registrars can reject would-be voters if they do not check boxes to indicate their citizenship and felon status.
In the e-mail, said the proposal needs work and input from “the broader elections community.” At the same time, Alcorn suggested that there was a real problem with incomplete voter applications.
“Since 2011, Virginia general registrars have denied over 100,000 voter registration applications due to missing information,” Alcorn said. “A person’s ability to register to vote should be judged on their legal qualifications and not on their ability to complete an administrative form.”
He said he was asking the Department of Elections to conduct an analysis on the rejection of voter registration forms, and to provide its findings to the board and to the public on the department’s Web site.
State Sen. Thomas A. Garrett Jr. (R-Buckingham) led the charge against the change, calling on supporters to show up at the July hearing. He could not immediately be reached for comment.
Anna Scholl of Progress VA, one of just a handful of people to speak in favor of the change at the hearing, said she hoped it would eventually be adopted.
“Over 100,00 rejected voter registration applications based on incomplete forms is a startling number that highlights the need to revise the voter registration form and make it more user-friendly,” she said. “We appreciate the Department of Election’s commitment to working with the elections community to further undertake that process and look forward to further data and analysis from the Department on how we can reduce barriers to democratic participation.”
Charlie Judd, who was chairman of the Virginia State Board of Elections during the term of Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), said he was “encouraged” that Alcorn responded to concerns voiced at the meeting. He said he hopes that elections officials ultimately conclude that the current registration form works just fine.
“I don’t think the form needs to be any easier than it is,” he said. “If they had trouble filling in boxes, how are they going to fill in the bubbles on the ballot?”