HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) — On Saturday, Gov. Ralph Northam signed hundreds of bills into law ahead of the state constitutional deadline for legislative action that night.
Among those bills were several that the governor said he hopes will increase voter turnout this November.
Absentee voting and excuses
Virginia currently requires voters who wish to vote absentee to provide a reason as to why they can't vote on Election Day, choosing from a list of pre-approved excuses.
“Restrictive voting provisions almost always disproportionately affects people of color and low-income individuals because those are the groups that move more frequently, work multiple jobs and have less spare time,” said Jenny Glass, director of advocacy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia.
House Bill 1 "permits any registered voter to vote by absentee ballot in any election in which he is qualified to vote," according to its bill summary.
It passed the Senate on 25-15 vote and the House of Delegates on a 65-35 vote.
William Ney, Vice Chair of the Harrisonburg City's Electoral Board, said he thinks the change in absentee voting gives more of an opportunity for anyone to vote ahead.
"This will definitely make it a lot easier," Ney said. "When North Carolina started their no excuse absentee voting, supposedly more than 30 percent of the people voted before the election – that's more people than we would have at any one of our precincts."
Photo ID requirement
Lawmakers in the Senate voted 21-19 and 57-43 in the House of Delegates to repeal Virginia's requirement to show a photo ID in order to vote.
It means that voting requirements in Virginia, essentially, will revert to a similar standard as in the years before the photo ID law was signed by former Governor Bob McDonnell.
Voters will be able to show voter registration documents, bank statements, paychecks or any government document that shows the name and address of the voter.
Voters who do not show valid identification when signing in to vote would be required to sign a sworn affidavit stating that they they are who they claim to be. The signed statement subjects the person to Class 5 felony penalties if the statement is false.
A voter who doesn't show photo ID or sign the statement can be given a provisional ballot.
Virginians currently must present a photo ID, such as a driver’s license or a U.S. passport, to vote in person. According to a 2012 study by Project Vote, an organization that works to ensure all Americans can vote, approximately 7% of the U.S. population lacks photo ID. This is especially true of lower-income individuals, those under the age of 20 and ethnic minorities.
Voters can provide their social security number and other information to get a free Virginia Voter Photo Identification Card, but some legislators said that service is unknown to many.
“Before the photo ID requirement, voters had to sign the affidavit to say they are who they say they are, and I think that was enough,” said House Majority Leader Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria. “I feel the photo ID was a way to suppress the vote because not everyone has one.”
Former Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell signed SB 1256 into law mandating voters have a form of ID with a photograph. Virginia is one of the 18 states with such voting requirements, according to the National Conference of Legislature.
In 2016, the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ID requirement after attorneys for the state Democratic Party challenged the law, arguing it had a disproportionate impact on low income and minority voters.
“People are fed up with our overly restrictive and racist voting policies, and the legislature is finally getting rid of some of the biggest roadblocks to progressive reform,” said Glass. “This has been a long time coming.”
Election Day a state holiday
The House of Delegates voted 55-44 to approve SB 601, which passed the Senate on a 22-18 party line vote, to make Election Day a state holiday.
The bill drew a lot of controversy not because of Election Day, but because it made it a state holiday by removing Lee-Jackson Day as a state holiday.
It was backed by Gov. Ralph Northam from its proposal.
Lee-Jackson Day, established over 100 years ago, was observed annually on the Friday preceding the third Monday in January, which, in effect, makes it the Friday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day. In the past, before the holiday was moved, it shared the same day as Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It honors Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, both native Virginians.
The holiday was initially created to celebrate Lee's birthday, which was on January 19.
In the Virginia code, both men are noted as “defenders of causes.”
State offices in Virginia are closed for both holidays. Celebrations include a wreath-laying ceremony, a Civil War themed parade, a gala ball, and in some places, Confederate flags placed on the graves of dead soldiers.
However, Virginia cities such as Richmond, Fredericksburg, Blacksburg, Newport News, Hampton, Winchester, Fairfax and Charlottesville have decided in recent years to not officially observe the holiday.
Officials have defended the day as a celebration of history, while critics view it as a celebration of the state’s slave-holding history that’s offensive to African Americans.
Each year, the Virginia General Assembly holds floor speeches to mark the state holiday. This year, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax stopped presiding over the state Senate as senators honored Gen. Robert E. Lee.
A similar bill to designate Election Day as a state holiday and remove Lee-Jackson Day from Virginia's state holidays was killed in a Senate committee the previous year. However, at that point, Republicans controlled the Virginia Senate. After Democrats' wins in November, which gained them control of both chambers of the statehouse, the bill may face a more favorable chance in 2020.
Governor Northam's administration said at that time that they supported the bill then as well, because making Election Day a state holiday would allow more people the chance to vote.
“There have been cases where voters had to leave polls before casting their votes, simply because they had to return to work,” Sen. Louise Lucas said. “Making Election Day a state holiday would make it easier for Virginians to vote.”
Sen. Richard Black voiced concerns about the 2019 bill removing Lee-Jackson Day, saying, “I have unease about the movement to erasing history. Maybe next time, it’ll be Martin Luther King. I would be opposed to erasing something in his honor.”
“Voting is a fundamental right,” said Governor Northam in a statement this year. “But in a state that once put up tremendous barriers to voting, too many people are still unable to participate meaningfully in our democracy. By making it easier—not harder—to vote, these proposals will ensure we are building a government that is truly representative of the people we serve. I look forward to working with the General Assembly to pass these important measures into law.”
Other election laws passed
Other laws signed by Gov. Northam on election access included automatic registration for those accessing services at the DMV and extending polling hours from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m.
“Voting is a fundamental right, and these new laws strengthen our democracy by making it easier to cast a ballot, not harder,” said Governor Northam. “No matter who you are or where you live in Virginia, your voice deserves to be heard. I’m proud to sign these bills into law.”
“Our democracy relies on equal access to the ballot box,” said House Majority Leader Charniele Herring. “I’m grateful to the Governor for his partnership in breaking down barriers to voting, and ensuring all Virginians have the opportunity to exercise this fundamental right.”