Virginia Republicans Wary of Proposals Facilitating Absentee Ballots

Republican legislators in Virginia are sounding the alarm about risks with new provisions providing prepaid postage and drop boxes for absentee ballots. The provisions come as part of a budget amendment proposed by Governor Ralph Northam.

The amendment provides $2 million to create the ballot drop boxes and to pay postage so that voters do not have to pay to return their ballots. The General Assembly will consider the amendments sometime near the beginning of next week.

Virginia State Senator Scott Surovell (D- Fairfax) warned that no matter what Democrats do to allay fears, Republicans will still claim voter fraud. The Republican concerns and the Democratic responses around voter fraud are common messages across the nation.

Virginia State Senate Minority Leader Press Secretary Jeff Ryer, spokesperson for Sen Tommy Norment (R-James City County), detailed three Republican concerns about the proposals:

First, ballot drop boxes create a potential for ballot harvesting. Ballot harvesting is when someone hands out absentee ballots to voters. Then, after the ballots are filled out, the harvester collects the ballots and files them. Adding an extra person into the process increases the risk of tampering with the ballots. Ballot harvesting is illegal in Virginia.

Second, Ryer said that prepaid mail is usually not postmarked, but the postmarks are used to determine if a ballot is filed on time. Without them, it would be hard to prevent late voting.

“The state board of elections ruled that if the postmark is not clear – in other words they can’t tell exactly what the date is (which happens with a decent percentage of postmarks,) or if it doesn’t have a postmark, the presumption would be it was filed on time,” Ryer said.

Third, Ryer is concerned that increased absentee voting will overwhelm Virginia’s elections systems. Ryer mentioned the problems in New York City’s Democratic primary. The New York Post reported that the primary saw 21 percent of its absentee ballots rejected in the June primary due to factors including voter error, a lack of a postmark, or the ballot arriving late.

Ryer warned about confusion between the terms “universal mail-in voting” and “absentee voting.” Absentee voting already exists in Virginia, although the volume of absentee ballots this year might be higher than normal. Universal mail-in voting is a system that sends ballots to all voters, not just absentee voters. Universal mail-in voting would be difficult to implement in less than two years, according to Ryer.

On Thursday afternoon some members of the assembly said they were waiting for legislation on universal mail-in voting, Ryer said. Hearing that, the Republican caucus began to fear that Democrats were going to sneak in a last-minute bill. Ryer said the comments were probably about the existing absentee ballot provision, not about universal mail-in ballots. Such a large last minute change to the election would be dangerous. Ryer did not think the Democrats would destroy election integrity.

Surovell expressed frustration over the misinformation. He said that the only ballot-related provisions being considered are the provisions for prepaid absentee ballots and ballot drop boxes. He warned that these kinds of fears are nothing new.

“Sounds like the same conspiracy theories being peddled by Russian Facebook trolls,” Surovell said.

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Eric Burk is a reporter at The Virginia Star and the Star News Digital Network. Email tips to [email protected].

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