RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — On Friday, the House and the Senate passed a bill that Democrats say will make it easier to vote during the pandemic. Republicans fear it will make the process less secure.
The budget proposal will take effect immediately after it’s signed by Gov. Ralph Northam. The measures will only apply to the 2020 Presidential Election on Nov. 3, unless the General Assembly decides to extend them in the regular session in 2021.
The proposal allocates $2 million to the Virginia Department of Elections to reimburse localities for prepaid postage that will be provided to voters that request an absentee ballot.
It also clarifies that voters do not need a witness to sign off on their ballot for it to be counted — a requirement that was waived to protect the most vulnerable during the pandemic.
The most controversial element of the bill is the authorization of drop boxes, where people can hand-deliver their vote on or before Election Day. The legislation requires at least one location in every precinct.
“We’re in a pandemic and it is really important that people will be able to vote safely and not put their lives at risk,” said Sen. Janet Howell (D-Fairfax).
During a lengthy debate before the bill passed, most Democrats argued that drop boxes are a critical alternative to make sure every ballot is counted, especially as the U.S. Postal Service warns of possible delays.
“It has been a disaster what is happening to the U.S. Postal Service so the idea of voting by mail–it may not get there in time,” said Sen. John Edwards (D-Roanoke).
At least one Democrat in the Senate called the change costly and unnecessary since Virginia has already expanded voting options during the pandemic.
“Why do you need this extra box at every precinct in the state,” said Sen. Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond). “There are thousands of precincts and they are as much as $3,000 per box.”
Sen. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) said several states already use these boxes and Virginia should follow suit.
“We’re not reinventing the wheel here,” Deeds said.
Lawmakers also debated if a third party should be allowed to return other people’s ballots to a drop box.
Democrats said restricting this could prevent some people from voting during the pandemic. Some states have regulations that only allow family members or caregivers to return ballots on another person’s behalf.
Republicans fear a lack of regulation could lead to “ballot harvesting,” when political organizers go door-to-door collecting ballots. Sen. Steve Newman (R-Lynchburg) said this increases the risk of results being tampered with.
Newman’s amendment, which was rejected by his Democratic colleagues, would’ve required each voter to drop off their own ballot.
“This is a great opportunity to have fraud. This is the first time you’ll have an individual come between the voter and the ballot box,” said Newman.
Democrats pointed out that voter fraud is extremely rare and carries a felony punishment.
Republicans countered that security measures for drop boxes should’ve been built into the bill. Instead, the Virginia Department of Elections will be in charge of setting them with weeks to go before a pivotal presidential election.