Virginia lawmakers hope long lines will push early voting bill

By American Independent
Friday, December 14, 2012 14:58 EDT
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Five-hour line for in-person absentee voting in Arlington (Flickr:TheGreenMiles)
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By Reilly Moore

A Virginia early voting bill failed during the past six General Assembly sessions, but some lawmakers hope that frustration over long lines during the 2012 election will lead to a more productive discussion on how to make voting more convenient.

Voters complained about lengthy waits from Norfolk to Arlington to rural Virginia. In Prince William County, filmmakers documented that voting concluded at 10:45 p.m., more than three and a half hours after polls were scheduled to close.

Polls close at 7 p.m. in Virginia, but as long as voters are in line by 7 p.m., they are allowed to cast their ballot. As a result, final vote times indicate which precincts dealt with the longest lines at the end of the day.

In Nottoway County, voters at the Blackstone Police Station precinct finished voting around 8:15 p.m., the county registrar’s office told The American Independent.

In Fairfax County, only two out of 237 precincts finished voting by 7:30 p.m., according to the Washington Examiner.

In Richmond, voting machine technician Jerry Ingram told TAI that 63 of 65 polling places closed by 7:15 p.m. and the last precinct finished voting by 8 p.m.

A survey from the 2012 election conducted by Hart Research and commissioned by the AFL-CIO indicated that Democrats and minorities were likely to wait in longer lines than whites or Republicans, according to The Huffington Post.

A Virginia voting rights advocate who spoke to The American Independent on background said urban precincts tended to see the longest lines because of a greater concentration of voters than rural precincts, but she did not believe discrimination played a role in the discrepancies.

The advocate also said that administrative issues like broken voting machines or a lack of poll books contributed to the long lines. With early voting, she said, some of those problems could have been identified before Election Day.

Registrars attributed the long lines to higher-than-expected turnout and a lack of volunteer poll workers, but Democrats in the General Assembly believe Virginia needs to do more to ensure that long lines do not discourage citizens from voting.

Sen. Janet Howell’s bill would allow voters to cast absentee ballots in-person without an excuse. Currently, Virginians may only cast absentee ballots if they provide one of 11 acceptable excuses.

Del. Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond) proposed an identical bill in the House of Delegates.

Virginia Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-11th district) and Sen. Mark Warner (D) also introduced legislation in Congress to encourage all states to allow early voting, among other changes.

“This is real simple,” Morrissey said. “We have 32 states that have no-excuse absentee voting, many have early voting and Virginia kind of lags behind. We talk about encouraging people to get out and vote but sometimes we make it less-than-easy for them to do that.”

Howell has proposed similar bills during the past six General Assembly sessions, but none have reached the House floor.

“The biggest obstacle is the Republican controlled [House] Privileges and Elections committee,” Morrissey said. “They look at it and they say, ‘it’s to our advantage to limit voter turnout, so what do we have to do to limit voter turnout?’  That’s their end goal but they give reasons that are generic or coded.

“It’s my job to remind them that after the most recent election, Republicans are trying to expand their party. To do that, you can’t limit people from voting.”

Del. Jenn McClellan (D-Richmond) said she hoped public pressure would lead legislators on the elections committee to send the bill to the floor for a full vote.

“It’s important that voters make their voice heard, especially in the House,” McClellan said. “If the public puts a lot of pressure on their legislative members, it will be a lot harder for Republicans to avoid the issue.”

The voting rights advocate said that Virginia voters were not alone in their desire to see reform, as struggles with early voting in Pennsylvania and Florida led citizens to ask for election reforms that more effectively met the needs of modern voters.

Gov. Bob McDonnell refused to take a firm position on expanding absentee voting, according to the Washington Examiner, but said any reform should balance increased voter participation against the “potential for mischief.”

But Morrissey disagreed with Republican claims that early voting could make it easier to commit voter fraud.

“When I hear this talk about voter fraud, it’s a catch-all that serves as a blanket reason for not doing this,” Morrissey said. “It’s kind of silly that we allow people to apply for concealed gun permits online but to exercise your franchise to vote we make it difficult.”

Morrissey said he expected compromise and moderation to define the 45-day legislative session and that he hoped expanding the electorate would be a bipartisan goal.

“Republican pundits seem to understand that they are going to become a dinosaur unless they do what they can to get more people into their party,” Morrissey said. “So, let’s start by not limiting access to the polls. Let’s embrace methods that will make voting more inclusive.”

Photo: Five-hour line for in-person absentee voting in Arlington (Flickr user TheGreenMiles)

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