NORFOLK, Va. — In the 2020 and 2021 November statewide elections, close to 4 million Virginians chose to vote absentee, breaking records and signaling a shift in voting preferences due to pandemic impacts and expanded voting options.
This General Assembly session, various Republican Delegates and State Senators have proposed 20 bills to restrict or limit absentee voting.
The bills would reverse some of the voting changes passed by state Democrats in recent years.
"The process of voting and voting administration has gotten itself tangled up in partisan politics," said Jesse Richman, ODU political science professor. "Ultimately, the public good gets lost when the focus isn’t on 'How do we make elections very secure, very transparent and very accessible.'"
Proposed bills include reinstating a requirement of an “excuse” to vote absentee, limiting absentee voting to a week or two weeks before Election Day and eliminating ballot drop-off boxes.
Other bills would require a photo ID to vote, require absentee ballots be mailed and received by Election Day to count, and eliminate the automatic absentee voter list – in which the registrar's office mails voters ballots for each election.
"If you keep flipping the rules around voting, you keep changing it depending on which party is in control, it does discourage a certain number of voters from voting," said 13News Now political analyst Quentin Kidd.
Kidd and Richman said they don’t expect these bills to pass this session, as Democrats control the state senate, but that could change in the future.
"I don’t think Democrats are going to be willing to let any of this get rolled back, even though Republicans will want to have the debate or try to do it," Kidd said.
Absentee voting surged in Virginia due to the pandemic, the relaxing of certain restrictions, and other factors, according to Virginia Department of Elections data.
- 2016 – 566,948 people voted absentee (Presidential)
- 2017 – 192,397 people voted absentee (Gubernatorial)
- 2020 – 2,687,304 people voted absentee (Presidential)
- 2021 – 1,202,087 people voted absentee (Gubernatorial)
Kidd said Virginia already has a strong track record of secure elections without any evidence of widespread voter fraud.
"I would say Virginia is one of the model states when it comes to voter security, so if that’s the argument that is used to try and pull back on people’s ability to vote, then it’s not a very strong argument because we just don’t have evidence of it in Virginia," he said.
Richman said there are absentee voting bills that could receive bipartisan support.
They would require registrars to sort and report absentee results by precinct, rather than in one large group, known as the Central Absentee Precinct.
That would give a better idea of who voted absentee in which areas. Six bills of this nature have been filed.
Here's a rundown of the absentee voting-related resolutions that have been proposed by Virginia lawmakers so far:
- HB 34 – Eliminates drop-off locations for absentee ballots
- HB 35 – Reinstates excuse requirement for absentee or voting by mail
- HB 36 - Repeals automatic absentee voter list and regular sending of ballots to voters
- HB 39 – Limits absentee voting to two weeks prior to the election
- HB 54 – Absentee ballots must be sorted and reported by precinct, not CAP
- HB 149 – Adds to witness requirement for absentee ballots, including address, social security number, date of birth
- HB 175 – Removes permanent absentee voting list, makes an annual absentee voter list
- HB 177 – Removes witness requirement, but replaces that with date of birth and SSN requirement
- HB 178 – Limits absentee voting to two weeks prior to election (like HB 39)
- HB 196 – Repeals permanent absentee voter list (like HB 36)
- HB 198 – Requires registrar to send notice at end of calendar year to absentee voter list members
- HB 310 – SSN requirement, repeals automatic absentee list, makes any ballot without a witness signature automatically void, ends prepaid postage on absentee ballots
- HB 398 – Absentee ballots sorted and reported by precinct, not CAP (like HB 54)
- HB 441 – Requires registrars to report the number and results of absentee ballots by precinct
- HB 528 – Additional requirements for unsolicited absentee ballot applications
- HB 779 – Photo ID required, absentee voting only one week prior to Election Day, no absentee list, no absentee ballots counted after polls close
- HB 927 – Absentee ballots sorted by precinct with vote totals reflective (like HB 54, 398, 441)
- HB 945 – Limits absentee voting to ten days preceding an election
- HB 956 – Requires absentee ballot to be received before the end of Election Day to be counted
- HB 1141 – Eliminates drop-off locations for absentee ballot
- HB 76 – Reimburses cities and counties for costs of absentee ballot processing
- HB 439 – Explanation of constitutional amendments included with absentee ballots
- SB 3 – Absentee ballots sorted and reported by precinct, not CAP (like HB 53, 398, 441, 927)
- SB 234 – Repeals permanent absentee voter list (like HB 36, HB 196)
- SB 236 – Eliminates absentee ballot drop-off locations (like HB 34, HB 1141)
- SB 306 – Requires registrars to report number and results of absentee ballots by precinct (like HB 53, 398, 441, 927, SB 3)
- SB 460 – Requires absentee ballots to be returned before end of Election Day (like HB 956)
- SB 552- Reinstates excuse requirement for absentee voting (like HB 35)
- SB 273 – Makes witness signature requirement optional with SSN or Drivers License