Virginia House, Senate Look to Change Absentee Ballot Rules

By Brian Carlton

August 28, 2020

Drop-box proposals head for one final round of discussion next week

RICHMOND-How secure will absentee ballots be this fall? The question doesn’t have a definite answer, at least not one that satisfies everyone. That uncertainty caused members of the Virginia House and Senate to both propose and fight against changes to the commonwealth’s absentee voting system this week. On Friday, both chambers passed a solution, each sending their bill to the other group for further debate. 

To be honest, there’s little if any difference between the two. The Senate version, SB 5120, generated the most controversy, due to some of the arguments tossed back and forth, but the overall details are the same. Both bills would give people four ways to send in absentee ballots. They could mail it, deliver it in person, send it by a commercial delivery service or take it to a drop-off location. That last part is what set off most of the debate, with Republicans upset over the concept of using drop-off boxes.  

“I’m not sure that the voter boxes are gonna work,” said Sen. Steve Newman (R-Bedford) on Thursday. “I’m not sure the costs won’t be prohibitive [and] I’m concerned about the safety of that ballot box. What if someone pours bleach in one of these boxes and all of [the ballots] are erased? What happens if there is a cherry bomb or a firecracker at a precinct where you think voters aren’t voting your way and all those are lost?”

Absentee Bills Pretty Clear About Drop-Offs 

Multiple senators pointed to Section B of the bill to answer Newman’s concerns. That segment says each local registrar, the person who handles elections for a city or county, will establish a drop-off location at their office. They’re also required to put a drop-off box at each polling place on Election Day. If the registrar feels more drop-off sites are needed, they would be allowed to set up as many as necessary. It would be hard, senators argued Thursday and Friday, for people to somehow pour bleach or a firecracker into drop-off boxes. In fact, they argued, it would be just as safe as putting the ballot into a mailbox. The ballots would be picked up daily, by two election officers, one representing each of the major political parties. If two opposite party members can’t be found, two employees from the registrar’s office would handle the pickup. 

Sen. Jeremy McPike pointed out it’s also currently a felony to destroy any type of ballot, so if firecrackers or bleach come into play, the person could be arrested. While that’s true, Newman’s Republican colleague Sen. John Cosgrove said he doubted that anyone would ever be convicted under that law. In order to be convicted, prosecutors would have to show someone had intent to damage the ballots. He believed people could simply argue it was an accident. As a result, he also called for the drop-off boxes to be removed from the bill. 

Fear Over Voter Harvesting

Overall, Cosgrove said using drop-off boxes was an excuse for voter fraud to happen. Democrats said this was set up to help elderly or infirm residents who can’t leave the house. They could vote, sign the ballot and give it to someone to drop off at the box. Cosgrove disagreed. 

“The idea of the 88-year-old mother, or the disabled person or the infirm needing somebody to take their ballot to the ballot box is a little suspicious,” he said on Thursday. “There is nothing in this bill that keeps someone from going door to door or in a nursing home from going room to room and harvesting ballots. This is voter fraud waiting to happen.” 

What’s to stop someone from agreeing to pick up the ballot and then because they see a Biden hat or a Trump hat, throwing it away, he asked.  

“My fear is that people are looking for something that’s not there,” said Sen. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath). “This bill is not about voter harvesting. It’s about making sure everyone in this commonwealth that wants to take part can do that. What do you do about that 88-year-old widow, who’s in her home without children, without family members, only with caregivers? What, are you saying she can’t vote? Thirty states use drop-off boxes such as this. We’re not inventing the wheel here.”  

Deeds is right about that point. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 11 states currently use the practice. That includes Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Washington. The U.S. Election Assistance Commission says most have one drop box in place for every 15,000 to 20,000 registered voters in an area. 

Both bills will go up for debate on Monday, with a potential vote before mid-week.

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