A Chronicle of Virginia’s Voter Access Improvements
In 2015, Virginia was among the lowest ranked states with regard to voter access, receiving an F in a nationwide report. Voting was more challenging than it had to be, poll lines were long with wait times averaging over 26 minutes during the previous two presidential elections, and early in-person and absentee voting was unavailable without an excuse.
Things have changed dramatically since then. Even before the pandemic, voting access in Virginia began to transform thanks to the work of the state legislature. Below, you will find a high-level overview of several key pieces of legislation that put voters first in the Commonwealth:
Prior to 2020, anyone looking to vote by mail or absentee needed an excuse deemed acceptable by state law to do so. Only people who met specific criteria were considered eligible, and every year, voters would have to provide an excuse when applying for an absentee ballot.
With the passage of HB1, the legislature removed the excuse requirement, opening up in-person and absentee voting by mail for any voter who wanted it, 45 days before an election. Initially introduced in January of 2020, the bill was prescient; later that year, legislators from around the country would be looking at no-excuse absentee voting to handle safety concerns amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of the most significant indicators of how far Virginia has moved in the last two years, HB207 creates a permanent absentee voting list — meaning that voters can sign up once to automatically receive their ballot by mail, and remain on the absentee voting list for as long as they’re eligible. Creating a permanent list reduces the administrative burden on registrars and local offices of election who otherwise would have to process absentee ballot requests from the same voter for every election. A smart way to reduce costs and put voters first. This law goes into effect July 1, 2021, but if you are already signed up for the one-year absentee ballot list, you will automatically be rolled over to the permanent list due to HB1888, discussed below.
While HB1 opened the door for expanded absentee voting, Virginia made other temporary changes to voter laws as the state attempted to navigate holding an election amidst a pandemic. To make voting more safe and secure for all voters, lawmakers established pre-paid postage for all absentee ballots, secure drop boxes, and they established a “curing” period for voters to correct their ballot if there was an error during the absentee process.
During the regular session in 2021, lawmakers took up making these temporary changes permanent, including adding improvements. They codified a “curing process,” secure drop boxes, the one-year to permanent absentee roll over, pre-paid postage, and tabulation and reporting procedures to make the process more accessible and transparent for all voters.
Finally, putting voters first is about giving voters options — and understanding that Sunday voting has played an important role in our country and elections. With HB1968 (which we wrote about earlier this year!), the legislature in many ways recognized the important role that churches have played in getting out the vote.
Introduced by Delegate Lamont Bagby, HB1968 allows local election officials the option to provide early voting in person on Sundays ahead of the election.
Virginians should be proud of the incredible progress that’s been made over the last two years. Instead of needing to carve out an hour to wait in line to vote, Virginians now have several convenient options, including early in-person, via mail, drop boxes, or in-person on Election Day.