RD579 - Virginia State Board of Elections Absentee Voting Report – November 12, 2019

Executive Summary:

In accordance with the provisions of Chapters 668 and 669 of the 2019 Acts of Assembly (the Act), which reads,

"That the State Board of Elections, on or before December 1, 2019, shall submit a report to the Governor, the General Assembly, and the House and Senate Committees on Privileges and Elections on the procedures and instructions promulgated by it for conducting absentee voting pursuant to the provisions of this act. The report shall include recommendations to be considered by the General Assembly for any further legislation that may be necessary for implementation of this act."

the State Board of Elections is pleased to provide to the Governor, the General Assembly, and the House and Senate Committees on Privileges and Elections this report on the procedures and instructions for conducting absentee voting pursuant to the provisions of the Act. This report includes recommendations to be considered by the General Assembly, including recommended legislation necessary for the implementation of the provisions of the Act.

The State Board of Elections and the Department of Elections are confident that Virginia will be able to implement the Act effectively and efficiently. The report below will demonstrate that the Act does not make sweeping changes to Virginia's existing absentee voting procedures and instructions. Rather, the addition of no-excuse absentee voting is the newest of many expansions to Virginia's absentee voting program. Further, this report will show that we have learned from the many states before us who have already passed similar laws.

Absentee voting first became a major issue during World War II, at which time Congress passed voting laws related to soldiers overseas.(*1) Subsequently, the federal government passed the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) and the Military and Overseas Empowerment (MOVE) Act, which have been instrumental in allowing service members to vote. During the 1980s, California became the first state to allow eligible voters to request absentee ballots for any reason.(*2)

The November 2020 General Election will mark the first period in Virginia's history where registered voters may vote absentee without providing an excuse. During their discussions of this Act, members of the legislature referred to this process as "no excuse in person absentee voting." However, the General Assembly should note that many states use the term "early voting" to refer to the same process. In this report, we use the term "early voting" when that is the term that a state uses to describe its no-excuse absentee voting period. The National Conference of State Legislatures, cited on several occasions throughout this report, uses the term "early voting" as a shorthand for each state's period of no-excuse absentee voting.(*3)

Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia provide some form of no-excuse absentee voting.(*4) Virginia and Delaware have recently become the 40th and 41 st state to enact legislation that allows for no-excuse absentee voting prior to Election Day.(*5)

In preparation for the rollout of Virginia's no-excuse absentee voting, we have researched the laws, business practices, and historical data of other states. For example, in September 2019, representatives from the Virginia Department of Elections (ELECT), the Voter Registration Association of Virginia (VRA V), and the Virginia Electoral Board Association (VEBA), traveled to Mecklenburg County, North Carolina to witness their noexcuse absentee voting first-hand. The representatives of ELECT, VRAV, and VEBA all found this exercise extremely useful, in particular as a way to prepare general registrars for the task of administering no-excuse absentee voting in Virginia.

Leaders at ELECT have participated in a number of phone calls with representatives from other states, to discuss their Information Technology (IT) infrastructures for no-excuse absentee voting. Specifically, ELECT leaders participated in preliminary calls with representatives from Mecklenburg County, North Carolina before visiting their locality. ELECT leaders also participated in conversations with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which provided ELECT with insight into both Maryland and the District of Columbia's IT setups for early voting.

While the period preceding the November 2020 General Election will mark Virginia's first no-excuse absentee voting period, the Commonwealth has already significantly expanded its pool of eligible absentee voters over the past two decades. The chart on pages 3 and 4 shows the expansion of absentee voting in Virginia from 1998 through today.

For several decades, Virginia has permitted absentee voting for individuals who will be personal business or vacation on Election Day, active duty armed forces members, individuals attending an institution of higher education who will be absent from their county or city on Election Day, individuals with disabilities, individuals awaiting trial for a misdemeanor, and for individuals primarily responsible for caring for an ill or disabled family member. (*14) As shown in the chart on pages 3 and 4, Virginia has a history of expanding its absentee voting practices to make voting more convenient and accessible for its registered voters.
(*1) MIT Election Date and Science Lab, "Voting by mail and absentee voting" accessed on October 1, 2019. Retrieved from https://electionlab.mit.edu/research/voting-mail-and-absentee-voting
(*2) Id.
(*3) See generally State Laws Governing Early Voting. (2019). Retrieved from http://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-andcampaigns/early-voting-in-state-elections.aspx
(*4) State Laws Governing Early Voting. (2019). Retrieved from http://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/earlyvoting-in-state-elections.aspx
(*5) State Laws Governing Early Voting. (2019) . Retrieved from http://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/earlvvoting-in-state-elections.aspx
(*14) See Va. Code § 24.2-700.