Absentee voting bills advance

February 18, 2021

Several bills under consideration this session stem from the significant increase in absentee voting in the November 2020 election, which was a result of the General Assembly’s action during the 2020 session to establish 45 days of no-excuse absentee voting.  Two omnibus bills, SB 1245 (Deeds) and HB 1888 (VanValkenburg), make permanent several changes to absentee voting procedures that were required for the November 2020 election under legislation enacted during the 2020 special session, and address other aspects of the state’s experiences in November.

Key elements of SB 1245 include:

  • Language requiring the Department of Elections to make a tool available to localities so that voters with visual impairments are able to mark absentee ballots and requiring general registrars to provide this tool to voters who indicate that such assistance is needed. Similar language was included in SB 1331 (Reeves) and results from litigation on this issue last fall.
  • Provisions making permanent the requirement for localities to establish drop-off locations for absentee ballots at the registrar’s office, any satellite locations, and at polling places on election day. Language allows voters to return absentee ballots to drop-off locations and requires information on drop-off locations to be included with absentee ballots.  These provisions had been in place for the November 2020 election.
  • Language making the “cure” process for absentee ballots permanent (general registrars are required to contact a voter if an absentee ballot is submitted with an error on the ballot envelope). These provisions were also in place for November 2020.
  • Language authorizing pre-processing of absentee ballots (to prepare them to be counted) prior to the seventh day before an election, and requiring pre-processing beginning on the seventh day prior to the election.
  • Language requiring the establishment of a central absentee precinct by the governing body.
  • Language directing the Department of Elections to convene a workgroup to evaluate methods for sorting absentee ballots by precinct and to report its recommendations by October 31, 2021. This concept addresses the issues raised in HB 2239 (Robinson) and SB 1153 (Suetterlein), which would have required such allocations by precinct (in-person votes on Election Day are attributed to each precinct, but typically absentee votes are all reported in the central absentee precinct, a situation that has been of more interest in recent months given the large expansion in absentee voting in November).  Although VACo has no objection to the concept, VACo and other organizations had objected to this requirement being put in place without accompanying state funding to assist with the additional equipment and printing costs required for its successful implementation, a complex task for localities with satellite locations serving large numbers of precincts.

HB 1888 includes the provisions of SB 1245 (except for the study of allocating absentee ballots by precinct), in addition to the following:

  • Language making permanent the requirement for prepaid postage to be provided with absentee ballots. During the special session, the state provided funding to reimburse localities for these costs (an estimated $940,000 was reimbursed for the November 2020 election), and language in the House budget would direct the Department of Elections to continue to reimburse localities for these costs out of remaining funds.  VACo has advocated for state dollars to continue to support this state policy goal.
  • Language requiring absentee ballots to begin being tallied starting at noon on the day of the election (current law permits counting to being at 3pm that day).
  • An enactment clause providing for voters who are currently allowed to submit an annual application for absentee ballots for all elections held that year to transition to the permanent absentee voter list.
  • Language directing that absentee in person ballots be reported separately from other absentee ballots, which is a step toward allocating absentee votes by precinct.

HB 1888 is on the Senate floor and SB 1245 is on the House floor.

SB 1239 (Bell) authorizes a general registrar to contract with a third party for the printing, assembly, and mailing of absentee ballots.  The State Board of Elections would adopt regulations governing the implementation of the bill.  SB 1239 is on the House floor.

HB 1968 (Bagby) authorizes an electoral board or general registrar to provide for in-person absentee voting on Sundays.  This bill is on the Senate floor.

VACo Contact:  Katie Boyle

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