RICHMOND, Virginia – The Virginia state Senate on Monday passed legislation that would repeal the witness signature requirement when people in the Commonwealth use absentee ballots to vote in elections.
Introduced by Sen. Barbara Favola (D-Arlington), Senate Bill 1097 passed the body by a 21-18 straight party-line vote, with all Republican members opposing the legislation.
According to the Virginia Department of Elections, those who choose to vote by mail must have a witness present, which can be anybody including a relative or neighbor, for when the ballot is opened and completed by the voter. Once the voter has filled in the necessary information, they put the ballot into a separate, included envelope and the witness will sign that envelope before it is sent back to the local registrar.
SB 1097 simply removes the need of a witness being present when filling out an absentee ballot and providing their signature afterwards, but does not change any other requirements, such as the voter’s signature or providing the correct county/city in which they are registered to vote.
“Well, I think removing the witness signature is really removing a barrier,” Favola said in an interview with The Virginia Star after the vote. “I mean we’ve had situations where a stray mark or the witness signature was not legible or there was something wrong and the ballot was discarded. There are thousands of people in Virginia who live alone and find it difficult to [get] somebody who can witness their signature.”
While addressing her counterparts during Monday’s session, Favola argued there is no evidence to suggest that a witness signature prevents voter fraud, and that the practice is not common with Virginia being one of eight states in the country still calling for a witness signature to verify an absentee ballot.
Favola also said the coronavirus pandemic played a factor in the need to repeal the signature requirement and the fact that it can create a health risk for certain people.
Sen. Jeremy McPike (D-Prince William) spoke in favor of the bill, echoing Favola’s point that the requirement creates a “real barrier” to voting and mentioned how an 85-year-old constituent had his vote disenfranchised because of the rule.
Although every Republican Senator voted against the legislation, only one member spoke in opposition on the floor: Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Rockingham), who said the primary issue at hand was hurting the confidence people have in the country’s election system.
“I’m not saying that I believe that there was widespread voter fraud that should cause us to invalidate Virginia’s votes or anything like that, but what I’m telling you is that people have a lack of confidence in the integrity of our system of elections and every time we remove a safeguard that people perceive as a safeguard of fairness, it further undermines voter confidence,” Obenshain said.
“I think it’s important for us to do more to sure up voter confidence, and I’m not making this argument on the basis of evidence of fraud, I’m doing it in the sense of bringing America and Virginia together,” he continued.
Sen. Emmett Hanger (R-Augusta) told The Star he agreed with Obenshain’s assertion, and that the witness signature requirement was not a major obstacle or hindrance for someone looking to vote by mail.
The passage of SB 1097 continues the trend by Democratic lawmakers of bringing changes to state election laws, stemming from the 2020 regular session and the special session in late summer, partly out of a perceived necessity as well as a desire to ensure everyone could safely vote during COVID.
Now, the legislation moves over to the House of Delegates, also controlled by Democrats, to be considered for passage. Favola told The Star she thinks the bill will make it out of the House and then be signed into law by Governor Ralph Northam.
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