Opinion: Commentary: New Voting Laws

With the primaries now behind us it is not too soon to turn our attention to the General Election on Nov. 3 and Virginia’s new voting laws that will go into effect on July 1st. It won’t be long until it is our opportunity and civic duty to vote for the next President, one of our two U.S. Senators, and our local Congressman. As a member of the Privileges and Elections Committee, I was very involved in expanding your voting rights and I am pleased to report that we passed many good bills that will make voting easier, safer, and more accessible, while protecting the sanctity of our election results, which is fundamental to our democracy. Furthermore, you can rest assured that Virginia is committed to ensuring the integrity of our elections and preparing for an historic number of mailed ballots.

The very first bill that was introduced this year, HB 1, was to remove the need to have an excuse to vote by absentee ballot. This law removes the current list of twenty statutory reasons under which a person may be entitled to vote by absentee ballot and now allows citizens to vote early for any reason or no reason at all. If you feel like voting early, you now can. End of story. No excuse necessary.

Another barrier to voting we removed was the requirement to show a form of identification containing a photograph of yourself in order to be allowed to vote. From July 1, you only must show your voter registration confirmation documents, a valid Virginia driver’s license, a valid US passport, or any other identification issued by the Commonwealth, or the United States, including any valid student identification card issued by any institution of higher learning located in the United States. Moreover, you could even now use a copy of a current utility bill, bank statement, government check, paycheck, or other government document that shows your name and address. It doesn’t even matter if your Virginia driver’s license has expired. It is still valid for purposes of voting. And, if you don’t have any of these documents you can still vote by signing a statement, subject to felony penalties for making a false statement, that you are the named registered voter you claim to be in order to be permitted to cast a ballot. If you don’t complete the statement or have any of the IDs mentioned above you can still cast a provisional ballot according to the provisions of current law which allow a voter until noon on the Friday following the election to deliver a copy of their identification to the local electoral board.

We passed HB 220, my bill to require the return envelope provided to absentee voters for the return of a mail-in absentee ballot to include prepaid postage. It would increase voting accessibility, as obtaining postage can be yet another barrier to voting for the elderly, those with limited access to transportation, and even college students. Casting your vote should be free of charge, period — even if it’s just the cost of a stamp.

Unfortunately, this bill had a reenactment clause attached to it before passage, which means that this bill will need to be passed again next year to go into effect. So, you still must pay for postage on your mailed ballot.

With health care in mind, many voters will take advantage of voting absentee by mail. Until now, your ballot would need to arrive at the general registrar's office by the time polls close on Election Day. Now, thanks to a bill that was introduced by Delegate Sickles, the deadline for returning absentee ballots has been moved to the end of the work week, the Friday after the election (before noon on the third day after the election). It still must be postmarked on or before the date of the election. You can apply for your absentee ballot online now. New expanded in-person absentee voting starts 45 days before the election.

We also passed HB 235, which will allow any eligible voter applying for or making changes to their driver’s license to be added to the voter rolls unless they opt out. Election Day has also replaced Lee-Jackson Day as a state holiday, a long overdue change I support. I look forward to the day it is a national holiday to encourage maximum turnout.

Future voting changes may include moving state and local elections to federal years, and allowing voters to vote anywhere in their county of residence instead of having to go to their home precinct.

Remember that all election tabulation equipment in the Commonwealth of Virginia is required to produce a paper trail. Other than ADA compliant systems, all voters are required to vote on paper ballots which cannot be manipulated. There will always be an audit trail that will allow for the verification of the results of any election. You can rest assured that your vote will be secure and counted. Don’t forget to vote by or on November 3rd. Thanks to your General Assembly, it is now easier than ever!

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