Judge rules Va. attorney general can allow June absentee voting without witness signatures

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RICHMOND, Va. (WHSV) — A federal judge ruled on Tuesday, approving Attorney General Mark Herring's agreement to allow absentee ballots in the upcoming primary elections without the usual required witness signature.

Judge Norman K. Moon, presiding in Lychburg, found that it is within constitutional rights for the attorney general to relieve voters of the need for a witness signature to vote absentee amid the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Herring said the ruling will "promote public health and participation in elections by encouraging safe absentee voting by mail in the upcoming June 23 primaries."

With both local May elections and June Congressional primary elections postponed by two weeks each, but still expected to take place in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Ralph Northam and his administration have been heavily encouraging voters to apply to vote absentee by mail.

However, normally, the process of voting absentee in Virginia requires a witness to sign the ballot. Herring's consent degree approved by the judge on Tuesday permits absentee ballots without the signature of a witness “for voters who believe they may not safely have a witness present while completing their ballot.”

The Republican Party of Virginia opposed Herring's move to waive the signature requirement, saying it would undermine election security.

“This agreement is a win for Virginia voters and a win for democracy. No Virginian should ever have to put their own health and safety at risk to exercise their right to vote,” said Attorney General Herring. “Now, susceptible Virginians will not have to jeopardize their well-being and violate social distancing measures to cast their ballot by mail.”

In a joint brief in support of the agreement, the Attorney General and the plaintiffs stated that the agreement “serves the public interests of election integrity, access to the ballot, and protecting public health.”

They also argued that the agreement, limited to just the June primaries, advances “the interest of the Commonwealth in (i) ensuring that all eligible Virginians need not jeopardize their health or public health to vote, (ii) protecting election integrity, and (iii) that resolution well before the primary will best equip election officials to carry out their duties.”

Herring said it would protect Virginians' right to vote, saying “many voters in Virginia who live alone may not be able to violate social distancing protocols to have an individual outside their home witness their absentee ballot or to vote in-person, meaning that they would not be able to cast a vote or have their vote counted in June.”

He and the other plaintiffs said the agreement promotes people continuing to follow social distancing guidelines that have been recommended by both state and federal public health officials.

Herring's brief said there are multiple other safeguards for absentee ballot security, including "provision of identifying information, a signed attestation confirming identity, eligibility, and lack of double-voting, and a check of the ballot against the list of ballot requests…and penalize malfeasance.”

The waiver of witness signatures does not apply to May's local elections.