Virginia Republicans Slow to Warm to Early Voting Proposals
Democrat Abigail Spanberger’s election night party officially started at 7 PM. But several hours later, a noticeably tipsier crowd at the Richmond Westin was still waiting for a final call.
Part of the holdup came from Chesterfield County, a battleground in the 7th Congressional District that helped hand Spanberger her eventual victory over Republican Dave Brat. Voters there faced lines that lasted up to two hours.
Some lawmakers say there’s at least one way to relieve the annual flashes of election mayhem: no-excuse absentee voting. In Virginia, voters who want to vote ahead of an election have to fill out an application and then vote by mail or in person. They also need one of 22 valid excuses: a pregnancy, a religious obligation or a long commute will do the trick.
Most registrars say they don’t have the time or desire to investigate those reasons.
“If that's the case, why don't we just get rid of the excuses, right?” says Tram Nguyen, co-director of the progressive advocacy group New Virginia Majority.
She and other backers of no-excuse absentee voting say it’s a no-brainer way to make voting more accessible. And, they say the proposal is the first step to loosening up voting rules that they argue make it unnecessarily difficult to vote here.
Sen. Mamie Locke (D-Hampton) is one of eleven Democrats who sponsored bills this year related to the issue. Her bill is still alive, but many others were already killed in Republican-led committees. It’s happened every year for at least a decade, and Locke says there’s a simple explanation.
“Virginia is one of those states that puts in all of these obstacles and barriers to this basic right of democracy,” Locke says. “[Republicans’] assumption is that people are going to be voting for Democrats. That hasn’t been demonstrated.”
Virginia is one of just 11 states that require an excuse to vote absentee. Early voting -- where you don’t have to fill out any application at all -- is increasingly common in other states. Some states, like Colorado, Oregan, and Washington, go so far as to mail all registered voters ballots.
The idea of opening up pre-election voting used to have more bipartisan support, according to Elliott Fullmer, an associate professor of political science at Randolph-Macon College who has researched the issue.
“In fact, the first states to adopt early voting were Texas and Arizona -- not exactly liberal bastions,” Fullmer says.
He says Republicans have gradually become convinced that early or absentee voting helps Democrats.
“And I think there's some argument for that,” he says. “Those who find it most inconvenient to vote on election day are typically younger voters, working class voters, those who live in urban areas where there's long lines on Election Day and these groups do skew Democratic.”
But Fullmer says that many older, more conservative voters also take advantage of absentee voting. And, he says even the most seamless early voting systems would probably only increase turnout by a few percentage points -- and even then, only if counties advertise the option.
Some Virginia registrars already do that, but others say that no-excuse absentee voting could require new offices and staff. That’s the main concern Republicans like Del. Riley Ingram (R-Hopewell) gave this year as they shot down no-excuse bills in subcommittee. Ingram said he’s open to the idea, but wants more time to talk to registrars.
“I do think that you will see it go through either this year or next year,” he says, adding that he thinks registrars should be able to bear a potential surge in early votes. “Spread it out over a period of time [and] I don't think that it will overload them.”
But Ingram’s not willing to consider other Democratic voting proposals designed to loosen up the process, including removing the photo ID requirement and allowing same-day voter registration. Ingram says these changes would lead to fraud.
“Let's say a person is at school or college,” he says. “They're registered in Hopewell or Prince George, or Chesterfield or Richmond, and then they vote here too. So they vote two times. And it does happen now."
But Fuller and other academics say there’s no evidence of election fraud in the United States. And, Democrats say that’s proof Republicans are just stalling.
But their best hope for changes may come from across the aisle.
Sen. Richard Stuart (R-Westmoreland) is the lone Republican sponsoring an early voting bill. Stuart is no one’s idea of a bleeding heart liberal; he recently gave a floor speech honoring Confederate general Robert E. Lee. But he’s stumped at how the early voting issue became partisan.
“Through personal experiences, I've seen how this just affects small business owners and working people,” he says. “It's tough to get the time to go and vote.”
Stuart’s bill is up for its own vote in committee on Tuesday morning.