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Lawsuit Tries to Stop Virginians From Using Coronavirus As Excuse To Vote Absentee

Polling place
(Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM)

The lawyer behind the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Citizens United, is suing Virginia election officials to stop some voters from submitting absentee ballots in the upcoming June 23 primary. Jim Bopp, the Indiana attorney who filed the lawsuit in federal court earlier this month, said the state can’t let voters use “disability or illness” as an excuse to vote by mail because of the coronavirus. 

The Virginia Board of Elections has encouraged voters to vote absentee next month, to prevent the spread of coronavirus at the polls. But because state law currently requires voters to list the reason why they can’t vote on Election Day, the board said they can just choose the “disability or illness” option.  The General Assembly passed a law this year allowing no-excuse absentee voting, but it doesn’t go into effect until July 1, 2020.

Last month, Gov. Ralph Northam encouraged Virginians to mail-in ballots in lieu of gathering at the polls.  

“Virginians should never have to choose between casting a ballot and risking their health,” he said

But Bopp said that guidance will disenfranchise voters. He filed the lawsuit on behalf of six Northern Virginia voters, including Thomas Curtin, who is secretary of the Fairfax County Republican Committee. He filed a similar lawsuit on behalf of voters in Nevada. 

“If you spring this on a soon-to-be upcoming election, where you’re going to increase the number of ballots by, say, five times, the result is massive chaos and disruption, lost ballots, all sorts of problems,” Bopp said in an interview with VPM Tuesday. 

The lawsuit also argues that allowing Virginians to vote absentee even if they do not have a disability or illness encourages them to make a false statement, which could be a felony. 

Virginians were also encouraged to vote absentee in Tuesday’s municipal elections, the results of which are still being finalized. 

Attorneys for the state said in a response filed Wednesday that Virginia law permits absentee voting during a state of emergency.

They said the absentee guidance represents a critical part of the commonwealth’s efforts to protect people from COVID-19.

“Plaintiffs’ request for a judicial rule change during the absentee voting period ignores the Supreme Court’s caution that court orders affecting elections ‘can themselves result in voter confusion and consequent incentive to remain away from the polls’,” the filing said. “Indeed, the relief plaintiffs seek would likely cause the very harms they claim they want to avoid: confusion, disenfranchisement, and last-minute changes.”

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump threatened to freeze federal aid for two states that recently expanded voting by mail, Michigan and Nevada. He said mail-in ballots are vulnerable to fraud.