A voting sign at Pemberton Elementary School in Henrico,, November 5, 2019. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ for the Virginia Mercury)

There’s been lots of arguing over legislating via Zoom. There’s uncertainty over how far Virginia should go on issues like pandemic relief and police reform. But the Democratic-led General Assembly appears unified on at least one point: Streamlining the absentee voting process needs to happen fast.

On Monday, committees in both the state Senate and the House of Delegates advanced legislation authorizing a system of ballot drop-off boxes, allocating $2 million for prepaid postage on ballot return envelopes and creating a process that would give voters a chance to correct paperwork errors with their ballots.

The bill also formalizes a federal consent decree that suspended a rule requiring witness signatures for mail-in absentee ballots, a change that arose from litigation handled by Attorney General Mark Herring’s office.

Arguing the state should do everything possible to make voting accessible during a deadly public health crisis, Democratic lawmakers advanced the measure over opposition from Republicans who claimed it could lead to fraud or partisan shenanigans.

The proposal is nearly identical to the plan introduced by Gov. Ralph Northam as part of his budget proposal. However, given the uncertain timeline for when lawmakers will act on the budget, senior Democrats filed standalone legislation to allow the changes to take effect as soon as the bill passes.

“People are waiting for this,” Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax, said before the House committee vote. “We need to get this bill done and signed by the governor.”

Time is critical for the state’s registrars, the local officials tasked with running a pandemic-era presidential election that will rely heavily on mail-in ballots and early voting. Absentee voting begins Sept. 18, and registrars will still need to get more detailed guidance from the State Board of Elections on how to implement new features like drop boxes. Any registered voter in Virginia can now vote early in person or request a mail-in ballot after Democrats scrapped a law requiring a valid excuse.

The legislation could win final approval and head to the governor’s desk as early as next week.

“No one should have to risk his or her life in order to exercise their franchise in this state,” said Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax.

The plan for drop-off boxes was the most hotly contested item in the legislation. 

The bill would require drop-off locations at every registrar’s office and satellite voting center, as well as at every polling place on Election Day. Local officials could set up additional drop-off locations as they see fit, as long as they’re located on public property.

Republican lawmakers pointed out that there was nothing in the bill that would prevent advocacy groups from going door to door to collect absentee ballots and drop them off in batches, a departure from a longstanding rule requiring absentee voters to return their ballots themselves.

“This seems to me to be the biggest invitation to fraud for the upcoming election that we’ve ever seen,” said Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg. “And we’re using coronavirus, a terrible thing, to kind of cover up for the fact that we’re making these adjustments.”

Republicans raised concerns about large-scale ballot harvesting that could occur if third-party groups with an interest in electoral outcomes are allowed to handle a large number of absentee ballots on behalf of voters. Last year, a Republican political operative in North Carolina was indicted for his alleged role in a ballot harvesting scheme that led state election officials to effectively cancel the result of a congressional race and order a redo.

Senate Democrats voted down an effort to make it a crime to drop off other people’s ballots. Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, said the Republican proposal could criminalize caregivers and family members who are taking care of the elderly people during the pandemic who may end up helping them submit an absentee ballot.

“I understand this is an extraordinary measure,” said McClellan. “But these are extraordinary times.”

Specific security measures for the drop-off boxes would be spelled out in regulations adopted later by the State Board of Elections.

If would-be voters fill out their absentee paperwork incorrectly, the bill would require registrars to try to contact them and give them an opportunity to correct the issue before Election Day.

Other Republicans asked what protections were in place to ensure drop boxes wouldn’t only be placed in areas with particular political leanings. Del. Nick Rush, R-Christiansburg, noted that the registrars who would be deciding the locations answer to local electoral boards that are controlled by Democratic majorities because Democrats hold the governor’s mansion.

“These are partisan boards,” Rush said.

“I hope that we are not trying to create a narrative that there is some dishonesty here,” replied Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, adding that Democrats are trying to ensure voting doesn’t become a “life-or-death” decision.

Other Republicans quibbled with the decision to spend $2 million on pre-paid postage to save voters the expense of a 55-cent stamp at a time when the state budget is tightening due to the economic slowdown. Del. Matt Fariss, R-Campbell, suggested the money would be better spent on Wi-Fi hotspots for K-12 students.

“Somebody who’s 18 years old ought to be able to figure out how to vote,” Fariss said. “But some of these kids in Virginia just don’t have a chance.”

Democrats were unswayed, advancing the legislation in both chambers intact.

“You should not have to pay to vote,” said Del. Paul Krizek, D-Alexandria. “Even 55 cents. It’s simple.”

The full House and Senate could vote on the legislation later this week.