A voting sign at Pemberton Elementary School in Henrico,, November 5, 2019. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ for the Virginia Mercury)
The Virginia State Board of Elections is recommending that the state create a 45-day early voting window for the 2020 elections, a significant expansion of the seven-day window the General Assembly authorized earlier this year.
Virginia has gradually widened its election laws to give voters more leeway to cast absentee ballots before Election Day. However, voters have had to give an excuse for why they can’t make it to their polling place, such as travel, work, a disability or military duty.
In the 2019 legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill allowing no-excuse absentee voting starting the week before the 2020 elections.
That bill instructed the Department of Elections to write a report on how the 7-day voting window would be implemented, including suggestions for additional legislation.
In the report presented to the State Board of Elections Monday, the department said the original plan could confuse voters by creating a “bifurcated” system” where some absentee voters would have to give an excuse and others wouldn’t, depending on when and how they vote. Dropping excuses altogether, the report says, could simplify the process.
“As the law stands, an individual voting in person absentee on the seventh day before an election would not need to provide an excuse,” the report says. “By contrast, an individual voting absentee by mail during that period would have to provide one of the 20 excuses. … Providing for only no-excuse absentee voting would eliminate this double-standard.”
It’s not clear if the General Assembly will support expanding early voting before seeing how things go with the seven-day window. But with Democrats winning control of both legislative chambers in this month’s elections, proposals to remove restrictions on voting are expected to get a friendlier response than they have under Republican control.
The first wave of Democratic legislation filed Monday — the first day lawmakers could file bills for the 2020 session — included a bill to scrap excuses for absentee voting. The bill was sponsored by incoming House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria.
Before a 3-0 vote to send the report to the General Assembly and Gov. Ralph Northam, Elections Board member John O’Bannon, a former Republican delegate, noted that he disagreed with the 45-day proposal.
“I’ve got kind of practical concerns and big-picture concerns on that,” O’Bannon said.
Supporters of early voting say it would boost participation by making the process less burdensome for people who prefer to vote before the 13-hour window on Election Day.
Skeptics say it could make elections more difficult to manage and secure and could cause voters to lock in a choice they may regret in light of late-breaking developments like a candidate dropping out or a surprise campaign scandal.
Most states offer some form of early or absentee voting. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 39 states and the District of Columbia offer excuse-free early voting. The average early voting period in other states is 19 days, according to research done by Virginia election officials.
Though the state oversees elections, city and county registrars perform the ground-level work like choosing polling locations, setting up voting equipment and processing ballots.
During a public comment period, several speakers representing local governments raised concerns about extra costs that could come with more expansive early voting.
“If there are significant changes in the 2020 session that are expected to be rolled out in the 2020 election, that may be challenging,” said Katie Boyle, director of government relations for the Virginia Association of Counties.
The report suggested several other legislative changes aimed at streamlining the process and making it easier for localities to establish satellite voting centers to handle the increased traffic due to early voting.
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