Lawmakers advance budget bill to make absentee voting easier in Virginia

Virginia

Virginia State Capitol (Photo taken by 8News’ Dean Mirshahi)

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Virginia lawmakers advanced a bill Monday aimed at making voting easier in the state, which includes proposals to provide $2 million in funding for prepaid return postage on absentee ballots and allowing localities to have drop-off boxes set up for mail-in-ballots.

The party-line votes by the Senate Finance Committee and House Appropriations Committee come as concern grows over how the country plans to hold elections during the coronavirus pandemic.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Postal Service sent a letter to the commissioner of Virginia’s Department of Elections, along with the majority of the country’s election officials, warning that not all mail-in ballots are guaranteed to arrive in time. In the letter, which 8News obtained, the Postal Service’s general counsel and executive vice president, Thomas J. Marshall, lays out the issues that could prevent ballots submitted near the deadline from being counted.

“The purpose of this letter is to focus specifically on the deadlines for requesting and casting ballots. In particular, we wanted to note that, under our reading of Virginia’s election laws, certain deadlines for requesting and casting mail-in ballots may be incongruous with the Postal Service’s delivery standards,” Marshall writes to Virginia Elections Commissioner Christopher Piper. “This mismatch creates a risk that ballots requested near the deadline under state law will not be returned by mail in time to be counted under your laws as we understand them.”

Gov. Ralph Northam, who included the bill’s proposals when announcing his priorities for the special session last week, accused President Donald Trump of attempted voter suppression after the state received the letter.

“This is a deeply troubling development in what is becoming a clear pattern of attempted voter suppression by the Trump administration,” Gov. Northam said in a statement. “I am committed to making sure all Virginians have access to the ballot box, and will continue to work with state and federal lawmakers to ensure safe, secure, and accessible elections this fall.”

GOP members of the House Appropriations Committee argued Monday that the $2 million for return stamps could be put to better use, saying that lawmakers should prioritize helping families hit hard by the pandemic. Republicans also shared their concerns over the burden the proposals would put on registrars during the election.

Del. Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights), the former GOP House Speaker, said that should be prudent in spending. “That’s a big chunk of change,” he told other members of the panel.

Democrats in the committee noted that other states have adopted similar proposals before the pandemic and stressed that setting aside funding would help older votes avoid having to head to the post office.

“You should not have to pay to vote, even 55 cents,” Del. Paul Krizek (D-Fairfax), who likened making voters pay for postage to imposing a poll tax, said.

This story is developing. Check back for updates.

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