From early voting to photo ID repeal, Va. Democrats have overhauled election rules to make voting easier

By: - March 16, 2020 12:01 am

A poll worker in Richmond holds an “I Voted” sticker. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

In the 2016 presidential election, almost four million Virginians cast a ballot, a solid 72 percent turnout of registered voters.

But another 2.5 million people didn’t vote, according to federal estimates of the voting age population, an eye-opening measure of disinterest and disillusionment.

If some non-voters think getting registered, presenting an ID and figuring out how to cast a ballot at a specific time and place is too much of a hassle, it’s about to get a lot easier.

Voting access was a top priority for the General Assembly’s new Democratic majorities, which sent a package of election-related legislation to Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk. Bills to repeal the state’s photo ID law and establish early voting, near-automatic voter registration through the DMV, same-day registration and an Election Day holiday are all on their way to being signed into law.

Northam can still make changes to specific proposals, but he has signaled general support for lowering barriers to voting.

Together, the legislation represents a major overhaul of voting laws enacted under decades of Republican legislative control.

“The first thing Republicans do when they take over state legislatures is they make it harder for people to vote. That’s how they held onto their majorities,” said Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax. “As the first Southern state to flip a majority from Republican to Democrat in this era, I think it’s appropriate that the first thing we did is make voting easier.”

Democrats pitched several proposals as being particularly helpful to the elderly, low-income communities and others who may be less inclined to clear state-enacted hurdles.

“For far too long we have asked constituents: ‘How bad do you want to vote?,’” said Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, the chairman of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.

Throughout the 60-day session that wrapped up this month, Republican legislators warned that opening up the election process too much would weaken safeguards against voter fraud.

“We have lost any hope of voter integrity in the commonwealth with the huge number of election bills that went through that were not properly considered,”  said Clara Belle Wheeler, a former Republican member of the State Board of Elections who tracked legislation this session.

The new voting laws will require local election officials to adapt their systems and procedures, a process that could require more staff and more funding. For that reason, one of the most dramatic changes, same-day registration, won’t go into effect immediately, giving officials more time to try to implement it smoothly.

“We want to tweak the system,” said Del. Joe Lindsey, D-Norfolk, the chairman of the House Privileges and Elections Committee. “But we want to make sure that we didn’t overtax those who are responsible as election officers.”

The major voting bills the General Assembly passed include:

Early voting

The state’s list of acceptable excuses for voting absentee is large enough to accommodate almost anyone. But the General Assembly has decided to drop the excuses altogether and allow early voting for any reason.

An approved bill would allow 45 days of in-person and mail voting prior to an election, allowing anyone who might have trouble going to their polling place on Election Day — or anyone who just doesn’t like to wait in line — to cast their ballot early.

Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, a patron of the bill, told a Senate committee she first introduced the idea more than a decade ago. The motivation, she said, was a robocall that wrongly told voters they could go vote absentee without an excuse.

“Then people were in the position that they would have to lie, basically,” Howell said. “It just strikes me as wrong that under any circumstances voters would be encouraged to lie to exercise their franchise.”

The legislature also passed a bill to create a permanent absentee voter list, allowing people who want to vote by mail every time to sign up to receive absentee ballots for every election. That bill would take effect in 2021.

Same-day voter registration

Currently, officials stop accepting new voter registrations 22 days before a general election. The General Assembly passed a bill lifting that restriction, allowing people to register at any time, including when they go to their polling place on Election Day. 

The change would take effect starting with the 2022 general election, a delay designed to give election officials more time to implement a process that already exists in 21 other states and the District of Columbia.

Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, said he went through a same-day registration process the first time he voted in his home state of North Carolina, which allows same-day registration during its early voting period.

“That’s not exactly a far-left utopia. It’s North Carolina,” Carter said. “If they can figure out how to do this, we can figure out how to do it.”

Automatic voter registration

Lawmakers passed a bill creating a near-automatic voter registration process through the DMV, streamlining the process in the hopes of getting more Virginians on the voter rolls by default.

For decades, the DMV was able to handle voter registrations using paper forms. The process was digitized in 2016, but the existing system requires users to opt in to having their information sent to the Department of Elections.

Under the proposed system, any eligible voter applying for a driver’s license or making changes to their existing license would have their information transmitted to the elections department unless they opt out. 

If that person isn’t already registered, they’d be added to the voter rolls where they live. If they are registered but their new license indicates they’ve moved, their voter registration would be updated with their new address.

At a committee hearing, Del. Josh Cole, D-Stafford, a patron of the bill, said it can help solve the problem of people mistakenly believing they’re registered.

“They show up on Election Day expecting to vote,” Cole said. “And then they’re not allowed to vote.”

Election Day holiday

Lawmakers voted to make Election Day an official state holiday, designating the Tuesday following the first Monday in November as a time set aside for “for the right of citizens of a free society to exercise the right to vote.” 

The change will give some workers the day off and allow schools to close.

To free up space on the holiday calendar, the bill ends Lee-Jackson Day, the Confederate remembrance observed in January on the Friday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

“It commemorates a lost cause,” Northam said as he signaled his support for the change in his opening speech to lawmakers. “It’s time to move on.”

Photo ID repeal

Under current law, all voters have to show some form of photo ID in order to receive a ballot, a requirement Democrats have criticized as cumbersome and unnecessary.

Legislators voted to scrap the ID requirement, allowing voters who can’t produce documentation verifying their identity to sign a statement swearing they are who they say they are.

Poll workers would still ask voters to show something to verify their identity, but the list of acceptable documents would expand to include expired driver’s licenses, utility bills, bank statements, pay stubs or other government documents showing the voter’s name and address.

Anyone caught falsely signing an affidavit could be charged with a felony.

During debate on the floor of the House of Delegates, Republicans asked what would happen if someone showed up to vote and found out someone else had already cast a ballot in their name. Democrats said that person could cast a provisional ballot then call the police.

“Who you gonna call the police on?” asked Del. Tony Wilt, R-Rockingham.

“When a felony has been committed, the police have things called investigators,” said Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax. “They investigate a crime. That’s what they do. That’s what we pay them to do.”

To find a person who cast a fraudulent ballot, Sickles said, the police could interview witnesses, check for fingerprints and analyze the handwriting.

“Wouldn’t it be a lot simpler just to have a photo ID?,” Wilt responded.

Democrats said nothing in the bill prevents anyone from using a photo ID to vote just as they always have. Republicans, they said, were raising far-fetched scenarios to sow doubt about a proposal that will make voting easier for anyone who doesn’t have a driver’s license.

Del. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, suggested Republican skeptics could start a TV show he dubbed “Law and Order: Special Voters Unit.”

“Unfortunately, I don’t think that series would last,” Hurst said. “Because it would probably get cancelled after one episode because the stories are so absurd.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.