Gov. McAuliffe pushes for easier voting in Virginia

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe

RICHMOND, Va. — To vote absentee in Virginia, a voter must cite a specific excuse, such as attending college or having a disability.

But if Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe has his way, the state would expand the list of excuses to include people caring for children or for an ill or disabled individual and anyone without reliable transportation.

In fact, McAuliffe said Virginians should be able to vote absentee without having to give an excuse.

He has urged the Virginia General Assembly to approve those proposals during the legislative session that began Wednesday.

The Democratic governor, in the final year of his term, discussed the proposals at a news conference Tuesday.

“These reforms will make it easier for Virginians to have a say in their democracy and boost their confidence that politicians are working for the public good, not their own,” Governor McAuliffe said.

Right now, to vote absentee in person, a voter must meet one of “13 arbitrary rules” that also apply to mail-in absentee voting, McAuliffe said.

For example, caregivers must be related to the individual they care for to vote absentee under current law.

Besides expanding the list of excuses to vote absentee, McAuliffe urged lawmakers to approve “no-excuse, in-person absentee voting.”

He called for “legislation that permits any registered voter of the Commonwealth to vote absentee in-person beginning 21 days before an election until 5 p.m. on the Saturday before the election,” with the same check-in procedures as on Election Day.

McAuliffe also said he wanted to repeal Virginia’s photo identification requirements for voters.

Those who passed this law “hung on the charade of voter fraud,” McAuliffe said. But he added, “Here in the Commonwealth of Virginia, there is not a shred of voter fraud evidence.”

Republicans have strongly supported requiring voters to show a photo ID.

Ed Gillespie, a candidate for the Republican nomination for governor in this year’s election, criticized McAuliffe’s proposal to eliminate the photo ID mandate.

McAuliffe’s recommendation “is out-of-step with the people of the Commonwealth,” Gillespie said in a news release Tuesday.

The photo identification requirement “secures the integrity of our elections and guarantees fair and equitable ballot access for all voters, despite the alarmist and false rhetoric of some,” Gillespie said.

He promised to protect the existing law if he were elected governor.

Several Democratic lawmakers have submitted legislation to carry out McAuliffe’s proposals to make voting easier:

Del. Richard “Rip” Sullivan of Arlington is sponsoring House Bill 1603, which would entitle “a person to vote absentee if the person is unable to go in person to the polls on the day of the election because he is primarily and personally responsible for the care of an ill or disabled individual who is confined at home.”

Del. Betsy Carr of Richmond is sponsoring HB 1935, to establish no-excuse, in-person absentee voting.

Sen. Janet Howell of Reston has filed Senate Bill 845, to expand absentee voting for caregivers, and SB 844, to provide for no-excuse, in-person absentee voting.

Del. Steve Heretick of Portsmouth has submitted a bill (HB 1904) to repeal the requirement that voters show a photo ID in order to cast a ballot.

Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, thanked the governor for pushing to end the voter identification requirement. But she asked for a greater reduction in absentee voting restrictions.

“If Virginia law limits no-excuse absentee voting to in-person only, qualified voters may be excluded from participating based upon a lack of readily accessible transportation, geography, income status, physical disabilities, and the constraints of modern-day individuals and families,” she said in a letter to McAuliffe.

First Lady Dorothy McAuliffe and Virginia Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam also spoke at the news conference.

Northam, who is seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, stressed his desire for a bipartisan effort to make it easier to vote.
However, this cooperation seemed unlikely as two Republican lawmakers are seeking to expand the photo identification requirement to Virginians who want to vote absentee by mail.

Story by Julie Rothey with Capital News Service.

Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students participating in the program provide state government coverage for Virginia’s community newspapers and other media outlets, under the supervision of Associate Professor Jeff South.