RICHMOND—Virginia lawmakers are opening the door to no-excuse absentee voting, but the limited early voting window the General Assembly is advancing may not take effect until the 2020 election.
Legislation that has passed the House of Delegates and the Senate would create a seven-day window prior to an election in which voters could cast ballots in person without having to give an excuse.
Under current law, voters have to give a reason why they can’t make it to the polls on Election Day before being approved for an absentee ballot. The permissible excuses allow absentee ballots to be mailed or issued in person to anyone who will be away at college, on active-duty military service, traveling or hindered by a disability or illness on Election Day.
Though the excuses are broad, Democrats have long pushed to scrap the requirement. Gov. Ralph Northam included no-excuse absentee voting among the ballot-access proposals he touted prior to the session.
“It’s significant progress,” said Del. Mark Sickles, D–Fairfax. “It will be interesting to see what the governor might suggest when the bill reaches his desk.”
Sickles said he hopes Northam will try to amend the bill so that it can take effect for the General Assembly elections this November.
Del. Nick Rush, R–Montgomery, who sponsored the House legislation, said limiting no-excuse absentee voting to a short window just before the election would ensure voters have as much information as possible before they cast their ballot.
“‘You have October surprises all the time,” Rush said, referring to new information that can surface late in political campaigns and potentially tilt election results.
Absentee voting begins 45 days before an election. The legislation would create a no-excuse absentee window starting on the second Saturday before an election and ending at 5 p.m. on the Saturday immediately preceding the election. No-excuse absentee voting would have to be done in person, and the bill would allow localities to open additional voting centers to accommodate the extra traffic.
The Senate version of the bill, originally sponsored by Sen. Lionell Spruill Sr., D–Chesapeake, included language specifying that it wouldn’t take effect until the November 2020 election.
Rush said the delayed enactment was meant to give election officials and localities more time to prepare for the fiscal and logistical impacts.
“Some of the registrars asked about that, because they didn’t think they had enough time to get ready for it,” Rush said.
The legislation calls for the State Board of Elections to prepare a report on the overhauled absentee voting system and recommendations for additional legislation that may need to be considered next year.