By: Tyler Wolf
Election season may not be upon us quite yet, but that doesn’t stop some from prematurely speculating that Virginians may find shorter lines at the polling precincts in November of 2020. This prediction seems counter intuitive given the political turmoil and controversy that has galvanized voters in recent years, but it can be explained by the passage of SB-1026 in February of 2019. This bill, now set to take effect in November of 2020, creates an exception to Virginia’s excuse requirements for absentee ballot voting. Democratic State Senator Lionel Spruill, the sponsor of SB-1026, postulates that shorter lines and increased voter access are possible results when the law takes effect. Despite these predictions, the actual impact of this law is questionable, as it does little to curb the effects of excuse-required absentee voting laws in Virginia. As enacted, the law simply carves out a narrow exception to an arbitrary practice that violates ideals of personal privacy and widespread access to voting.
No-excuse absentee voter laws refer to state laws that allow absentee ballots to be cast without forcing individuals to reveal why they are not appearing at the polling places on Election Day. In their purest form, such laws allow eligible voters to cast their votes remotely and early for any reason, even convenience, as opposed to excuse-requiring laws which compel an explanation. While some may question whether something so seemingly innocuous could actually impact voting practices, the Current Population Survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed that only 9% of voters in excuse-required states cast their ballots via mail, compared to 29% of voters in no-excuse states. The impact of increased utilization of absentee ballots should be clear in Virginia, where 704 of over 3,100 counties are considered completely rural, compared to 29 counties that are considered completely urban. Voters in rural communities would likely benefit from not traversing potentially long distances to vote, and voters in urban communities would likely benefit from reduced waiting times at polling locations and not relying on public transportation to vote.
The ACLU, which supports no-excuse absentee voter laws, raises the noteworthy concern that excuse requirements threaten the personal privacy of voters. Summing up this concern, ACLU-Virginia states that “the law currently requires voters to disclose private and sensitive information (e.g., pregnancy, disability status, caregiver responsibilities, business and personal travel plans) to establish eligibility to vote by absentee ballot. This information is being required by a law that provides no assurance that the information will be held confidential and secure….” This consideration is especially salient in light of the fact that factors such as disability status have no bearing on voting or preventing voter fraud. Although the law does not require exacting specificity, many may not want this information available to the public.
As codified, SB1026 does provide for no-excuse absentee ballots, but only to a very limited extent. As before, the Code of Virginia provides that applications for absentee ballots are required up until about a week and a half before the election. As before, the applications require applicants to provide their “excuse” for not attending the polls in person. Reminiscent of excused absences in middle-school, potential voters are required to provide such information as “the name of [their] business or employer and hours [they] will be at the workplace and commuting on election day” if working and commuting for 11 hours or more on election day, or that they suffer from some disability if they are a person with a disability. In fact, the only thing that has substantively changed is that no such application is required if the registered voter casts their vote in person at designated areas between the second Saturday preceding the election and Election Day itself.
I’m not here to say that this change is a step in the wrong direction. To the contrary, this law moves Virginia closer into alignment with the thirty-one states (and D.C.) which offer no-excuse absentee voting. Yet Virginia legislators have failed to make a substantive impact on a valuable resource to voters. Limiting the no-excuse absentee voting to a week and half before the election, and only for in person votes, appears almost as arbitrary as the law requiring an excuse in the first place. Opponents of no-excuse absentee ballots have primarily pointed to the fact that casting votes early prevents the voters from considering last-minute developments that would otherwise change their vote. I would posit that, barring extreme circumstances, very few voters would change their votes at the last minute, especially considering the current tensions that have brought politics to the forefront of many citizens’ minds. Voters that are on the edge can simply opt to wait until Election Day itself. Such considerations cannot outweigh the potential benefits of no-excuse absentee voting, such as decreasing pressure on polling locations, maintaining voter privacy, reducing confusing bureaucracy, and increasing accessibility. The law in its current form does little to address the issues faced by Virginia voters. If they wish to avoid the invasion of their privacy and the completion of a bureaucracy-laden application process, they will still need to take the time to travel to a potentially distant physical location. If real changes are to be effectuated, the arbitrary restrictions on no-excuse absentee voting should be done away with in Virginia and replaced with law that genuinely facilitates greater access without the cost of personal privacy.