The State Board of Elections took action on November 18 on two significant initiatives stemming from legislation enacted in 2019 – the implementation of “no-excuse” absentee voting and the establishment of security standards for local information technology systems that interact with the state’s voter registration system. Both efforts will require additional resources for localities to implement; VACo will continue to advocate for state assistance to counties in elections administration.
No-Excuse Absentee Voting
Legislation that passed in 2019 authorizes voters to cast absentee ballots in person during the week prior to the election (from the second Saturday preceding the election through the Saturday immediately preceding the election) without needing to provide one of the statutory excuses for voting absentee, beginning with the November 2020 election. Absentee in-person voting for voters who qualify under the existing list of excuses will be available from the 45th day preceding the election until the beginning of the “no-excuse” period.
The 2019 legislation also directs the State Board to report on its plans for implementation, to include recommendations for any additional legislation that might be needed. In preparing the draft report, which was approved by the State Board on November 18, the Department of Elections held several meetings with stakeholders, including VACo; VACo encouraged the Department to take a flexible approach to implementation that would allow localities to establish satellite voting locations in a manner that best fits locality needs.
Among the report’s key recommendations are the following:
- The report does not recommend that the state dictate the placement of satellite early voting locations (such as by requiring a certain number of satellite locations per number of registered voters). It does suggest transferring the authority to establish satellite locations from the local electoral board (as provided in the 2019 legislation) to the local governing body, similar to the local governing body’s existing authority to establish polling places by ordinance.
- The report recommends the establishment of public notice requirements in the event of a change in satellite locations; these requirements would be more flexible than the notice requirements for a change in a polling place and would permit notice to be made via the locality’s website or a newspaper of general circulation.
- The report recommends that legislation be adopted to require some uniformity in the hours of operation for satellite voting locations, whether by requiring all the satellite locations within a locality to have the same hours of operation, or by requiring the same hours of operation for all satellite locations statewide.
- The report recommends expanding the “no-excuse” absentee period to 45 days in order to minimize voter confusion (under the 2019 legislation, prospective absentee in-person voters need an excuse from 45 days before the election until two Saturdays before the election, and an excuse would still be required for absentee voting by mail at all times).
VACo’s comments to the State Board expressed appreciation for the Department’s willingness to consider local governments’ perspective in drafting the report, and for the flexibility provided to localities in establishing satellite locations. VACo noted that extending the “no-excuse” absentee period during the 2020 session may be challenging for some counties, as localities have used the additional time afforded by the 2019 legislation’s delayed enactment to plan and budget for one week of early voting and may have to revise these plans in a compressed time period in order to accommodate 45 days of early voting. Accommodating even the eight days of early voting envisioned in the 2019 legislation will require additional resources from localities that need to establish satellite locations, which must be equipped with pollbooks and voting machines and staffed by officers of election.
At the November 18 meeting, the State Board also adopted security standards for the local technology systems that interact with VERIS, the state voter registration system. Authority to establish these standards was incorporated in legislation enacted in 2019; at the request of VACo and VML, language was added to the legislation requiring consultation with a workgroup of local IT professionals in developing the standards, as well as general cost estimates for their implementation. This workgroup met throughout the summer to discuss proposed standards, which address IT governance, physical security, password management, training, and incident response, among other areas. The standards as adopted by the State Board may be found in the Board’s meeting packet beginning on page 74.
Detailed information on the implementation of the new standards will be provided by the Department of Elections in the near future. As a first step, localities were asked earlier this fall to conduct two self-assessments by the end of the year in order to establish a baseline, which will shape local elections security plans. The Department of Elections recognizes that it will be difficult for localities to be in full compliance with all standards by fall 2020, and plans to use the results of the self-assessments to assist localities to the extent Department resources allow, such as by providing templates for required policies or other in-kind assistance.
VACo Contact: Katie Boyle