Va. lawmakers begin taking up dozens of election bills amid swirl of conspiracies

By: - January 20, 2021 12:01 am

Voters cast ballots at Main Street Station in Richmond in 2020. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

A 7 a.m. subcommittee discussion on the finer points of election administration isn’t normally the type of Virginia General Assembly meeting that leads to anger and hurt feelings. 

But with the nation still reeling over departing President Donald Trump’s myriad falsehoods about the 2020 election and the Capitol mob that believed them, these are not normal times.

As Republican delegates pitched ideas early Tuesday morning for how Virginia could reduce confusion and restore public confidence in the election system, some Democrats made clear they weren’t particularly interested in hearing how the party of Trump plans to fix a Trump-driven problem.

Del. Margaret Ransone, R-Westmoreland, insisted there was nothing partisan about her proposal to require the state Department of Elections to quickly publish on its website any official guidance sent to local election administrators. She said it would clear up confusion and “bring transparency to our elections.” 

Del. Paul Krizek, D-Alexandria, was skeptical, suggesting the rule might create an opening to sue if the agency failed to post something within the 24 hours outlined in the bill.

“I’m not very sanguine about any election law coming from your side of the aisle right now,” Krizek said. “Especially listening to your leader.”

Ransone took offense.

“This is a sad start to my day. And a sad start to the beginning of the 2021 session,” she said. “I’m sorry to see this.”

Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Bristol, jumped in to say he too didn’t appreciate the tone.

“Delegate Ransone is not Donald Trump. If you want to kill her bill, kill her bill,” he said before the Democratic-led panel killed the bill.

The back-and-forth highlighted the tensions surrounding the dozens of election bills filed this year as Democrats try to build on their prior efforts to make voting easier. With many in the Republican base buying into Trump’s baseless claims of widespread election fraud, GOP legislators are pushing numerous proposals to tighten election laws with the ostensible goal of preventing conspiracy theorizing in the future.

Meanwhile, some in the Republican caucuses are actively promoting conspiracy theories themselves. 

As the 2021 session began last week, House of Delegates Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, stripped three Republican delegates of some committee assignments because they had signed onto a letter asking Vice President Mike Pence to overturn Biden’s lopsided victory in Virginia. Two of the punished lawmakers — Dels. Dave LaRock, R-Loudoun and Ronnie Campbell, R-Rockbridge — have demanded to be reinstated, claiming Filler-Corn violated their rights to free speech.

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats are pursuing a formal censure for Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, a candidate for governor who repeated baseless fraud claims on the Senate floor and defended the Trump supporters who stormed the U.S. Capitol.

State election officials are preparing their routine post-election report that details any problems that may have arisen and how they might be addressed. That report was not yet available as of Tuesday, officials said. 

Ignoring Republican complaints that Virginia’s election laws have become too lenient, Democrats are working to codify many of the changes put in place last year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including easier absentee voting and ballot drop boxes.

Democrats have also filed legislation to ban guns near polling places, create state-level voting rights protections for minorities, require officials to post clear instructions on curbside voting and empower localities to offer in-person early voting on Sundays.

Explicitly allowing early voting on Sundays, supporters say, will help alleviate long lines and give people more time to vote on weekends.

“It will be less of a burden not only on individuals who are standing in line but also on individuals working in the registrar’s office that are ransacked on Saturday,” Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, a patron of the Sunday voting bill, said in a subcommittee presentation Tuesday.

Skeptics have argued the bill, which doesn’t require all localities to offer Sunday voting, could create a patchwork system with neighboring election offices having different operating hours depending on how much staff and funding they have.

“It’s a voter confusion issue for us,” said Wise County Registrar Allison J. Robbins, the president of the Voter Registrars Association of Virginia.

Perhaps most ambitiously, Democrats are pushing for a constitutional amendment to end Virginia’s policy of disenfranchising felons for life unless a governor takes action to restore their civil rights. That change won’t happen for at least two years because it will require General Assembly passage twice followed by a successful statewide ballot referendum.

On Monday, the House approved a lengthy absentee voting bill that reestablishes several changes adopted through the budget last year. The bill includes absentee ballot drop-off boxes, prepaid postage for absentee envelopes and the curing process allowing voters to correct any problems with their absentee paperwork. It also includes technical changes meant to clarify how absentee votes are counted and processed to allow results to be reported earlier on election night.

The House also voted unanimously to pass a bill giving the governor authority to extend the voter registration deadline if last-minute problems arise. Courts had to order the state to reopen registration in the last two presidential election years, both times in response to website outages. The pending legislation would empower the governor to change the deadline on his own without requiring voting-rights groups to sue and convince a judge to do it.

Democratic lawmakers have characterized the 2020 election as an obvious success, saying the massive shift to early and absentee voting during the pandemic showed that voters appreciated having more ways to cast a ballot.

Republicans have insisted the more open voting process created more uncertainty. They’ve filed legislation to bring back some voting restrictions Democrats did away with and create new ones. The GOP-sponsored election bills include proposals to restore the repealed photo ID law, create a signature matching process for absentee voting and require the vote counting process to be live-streamed.

“It’s obvious that Democrats want to loosen the rules that assisted them in the last election and so greatly contributed to undermining confidence in the last election,” House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said in a Zoom call with reporters Tuesday.

At Tuesday’s subcommittee meeting, Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, said Republicans should look within their own ranks to find the cause of voters’ mistrust and confusion.

“When you come in here and you say that there’s a lot of confusion, well that might be because major members of your caucus have sown that confusion. It’s not even about President Trump,” VanValkenburg said. “Why don’t you guys stop sowing confusion?”

Krizek apologized for his aggressive tone while discussing Ransone’s bill. But, he said, it was in response to months of “outright fabrications” from the president.

“Maybe I’ve had too much coffee this morning,” he said.

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.