Va. Republicans won big under Democratic voting rules. They still want tougher laws.

By: - January 21, 2022 12:04 am

GOP members of the House of Delegates are sworn in for the 2022 legislative session. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Virginia Republicans had a wildly successful election night in what had been a solid blue state in 2021, playing by Democratic voting rules the GOP spent two years arguing against.

If Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s undisputed, high-turnout win meant Republicans might rethink their fears about the integrity of the state’s election system, it’s not showing in the dozens of bills GOP legislators have filed to undo laws Democrats passed to make voting easier.

Youngkin launched his gubernatorial bid last year with a focus on “election integrity,” but election issues haven’t featured prominently in his early speeches, executive actions and personnel decisions. 

One of Youngkin’s top election priorities, making photo IDs mandatory again for in-person voting, already went down in defeat this week in the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee.

As long as the Democrats who control that committee stay in their seats for future votes, said Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, “the same thing will happen” if and when the Republican-led House of Delegates sends over a wave of bills to reinstate voting restrictions Democrats scrapped.

“People are throwing red meat to their base,” said Deeds, who chairs the Senate elections committee. “Democrats do it. Republicans do it. In this case, Republicans are doing it a lot more.”

Republicans seemed to embrace early voting last year, telling supporters casting ballots early was the best way to ensure their vote would count.

“We did not change those rules. But we certainly tried to abide by them,” said House Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah. “And had a lot more success than we would have ever imagined.”

Several GOP bills filed this year would shorten the early voting window to just a few weeks prior to an election instead of 45 days. Another would once again require voters, in some circumstances, to give an excuse for why they should be allowed to vote absentee. Other bills aim to repeal the state’s permanent absentee voting list, which lets people sign up to receive ballots via mail in every election instead of having to make a new request each time. There are multiple bills to ban ballot drop boxes, a new convenience adopted during the pandemic.

One of the Democrats’ most significant changes, same-day voter registration, won’t be implemented until later this year, meaning it’ll fall to Youngkin’s administration to execute the policy. A Republican bill to repeal same-day registration before it can take effect also already went down to defeat in the Senate elections committee.

Just because there’s no evidence the new laws have been exploited yet, Gilbert said, doesn’t mean Republicans will abandon efforts to tighten them going forward.

“In all of socialist Europe you have to have an ID to vote,” Gilbert said. “So the fact that you don’t in the Commonwealth of Virginia is absurd to me.”

House Speaker Todd Gilbert address the chamber after being sworn in. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, pointed to opinion polls showing strong support for photo ID laws as he presented the bill in committee, support that crosses partisan and demographic lines.

“It’s Republicans, Democrats, independents, Blacks, Whites,” Obenshain said. “It is something that we can link arms and put back in the code of Virginia.”

Democrats killed his bill in a 9-6 vote.

Virginia is an outlier in the national debate over voting rights, a state where Democrats successfully enacted sweeping voting-access measures only to see Republicans make a political comeback.

Last year, the GOP swept statewide contests after a decade-long losing streak and retook control of the House of Delegates. Virginia’s new voting-access protections meant Democrats couldn’t point to vote suppression or low turnout to explain Republicans’ success. The outcome also sharply contradicts right-wing rhetoric, much of it fueled by ex-President Donald Trump’s false claims about his loss in the 2020 presidential contest, claiming looser voting laws lead to fraud or stolen elections. 

In a floor speech this week, Del. Marcia Price, D-Newport News, who in 2021 helped make Virginia the first southern state with its own version of the Voting Rights Act, said conservative complaints about the validity of election results seemed to quiet after a big election went their way. She said she sees a  “deep chasm” between new Republican leaders’ vows to govern for all Virginians and election bills that disproportionately impact “Black voters, older voters, younger voters and disabled voters.”

Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News. (2020 Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

“I don’t just get to spout the words out that make people feel good, and then do the detrimental work to undermine their rights,” Price said. “The gaslighting has got to stop.”

In a report released this month, the Virginia Department of Elections said that, from an administrative standpoint, the 2021 elections were another “resounding success,” proving elections can be both accessible and secure at a time when “all eyes were on Virginia.” More than 3.2 million Virginians voted in the contest for governor, an increase of about 24 percent from the 2017 election won by former Gov. Ralph Northam.

The post-election report identified a few relatively minor problems like incorrect ballots being distributed to some voters, some localities not printing enough ballots and some voters being wrongly told they had to wear a mask to enter a polling place. But there were no major controversies, despite the extra scrutiny that came from a “spike in partisan poll watchers and public-records requests.

“Virginia welcomed these observers and these FOIA requests,” the report says. “The Commonwealth’s election administrators strive to conduct elections in the sunshine and believe strongly that the best antidote to concerns about how elections are administered is simply to let those people in to see how the process works.”

Despite the deep divide on voting rules, there are glimmers of bipartisan agreement on a plan to depoliticize the state Elections Department itself.

If approved, the legislation could mean Youngkin giving up his power to hand-pick the state’s top election official, potentially appealing to Democrats worried about political interference and to Republicans who say they want to boost public confidence in the system.

That proposal is part of an omnibus election bill being backed by the Youngkin administration that encompasses several of the governor’s policy priorities. The House version of the bill, sponsored by Del. Margaret Ransone, R-Westmoreland, the new chairwoman of the House Privileges and Elections Committee, would reinstate photo ID, tighten procedures for collecting absentee ballots from drop boxes, require audits of ballot scanner machines before election results are certified and direct election officials to clear dead people from the voter rolls on a weekly basis instead of once per month.

“The governor pledged to make Virginia’s elections safer and more transparent and the governor is committed to fulfilling his promises,” said Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter.

The Youngkin-supported bill also aims to make the Department of Elections more independent by having the commissioner of elections report to an expanded Board of Elections instead of being a political appointee of the governor. Ransone’s bill, which has not been taken up in the House, also calls for equal partisan representation on the elections board, a change from the current system that gives the governor’s party a majority of the seats. That idea has run into resistance, with skeptics saying it would lead to dysfunction and deadlocked votes.

But a tweaked, standalone version of the proposal, one the Youngkin administration also supports, has already passed muster with Democrats on the Senate elections committee. That version, sponsored by Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Fauquier, would create a seven-person elections board, with the governor’s party entitled to a four-seat majority. It would take six of the board’s seven votes to hire or fire the elections commissioner.

Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Fauquier, speaks on the floor of the Virginia Senate. (2020 Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

“This is something where there should be independence,” Vogel said. “And the guidance that’s provided ought to come from an independent agency.”

Vogel said she cares less about the exact setup of the elections board as long as the agency it’s working with, which deals with local election registrars in every Virginia city and county, isn’t seen as a partisan actor.

The Virginia Electoral Board Association spoke in favor of the bill, as did Aliscia Andrews, Youngkin’s deputy secretary of administration.

“We want to make sure that the commissioner of elections is brought on by a bipartisan process,” Andrews said,  just before the bill cleared the Senate committee on a 13-2 vote, with just two Democrats opposed.

Current Elections Commissioner Chris Piper, who appears to have some bipartisan support for remaining in his job despite being an appointee of Gov. Ralph Northam, told the committee that, after speaking with the Youngkin administration, he too supports the bill.

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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. Contact him at [email protected]

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