By: Deb Wake, President, League of Women Voters of Virginia

The League of Women Voters formed 100 years ago out of women’s fight for the right to vote. We have been fighting for voting rights ever since and working to educate voters, lawmakers and public officials.

Virginia made a lot of changes to voting laws this legislative session.  Just as the session was winding down, we found ourselves in the midst of a pandemic. The laws passed by the General Assembly this session, such as no excuse absentee voting, do not go into effect until July 1, 2020 and some have a delayed start beyond that.

On March 12, Governor Northam declared a State of Emergency eight days before early voting for May 5 municipal elections were set to begin. On its website, the “Virginia Department of Elections encourages voters to protect their health during COVID-19 outbreak. Voting absentee in the coming May and June elections is strongly encouraged. Voters may choose reason ‘2A My disability or illness’ for absentee voting in the May and June 2020 elections due to COVID-19. Voters who choose the absentee option should do so as soon as possible so they can get their ballots in time to return them by mail by Election Day.”

The intervention of a witness is unnecessary and besides being a barrier to voting, poses a health risk the voter was trying to avoid by requesting the absentee ballot in the first place.

On March 17, Governor Northam announced new safety measures: no public gatherings of more than ten people and everyone should practice social distancing. Those over the age of 65 were recommended to self-quarantine. 

The recommendation from the Department of Elections means that voters are requesting absentee ballots in record numbers. Many have only ever voted in person and were unprepared to learn that absentee ballots require a witness to watch them open, mark and seal their ballots. This same witness must then sign the absentee ballot envelope before it is returned to the registrar’s office. 

Many of these first-time absentee voters are over 65, live alone, and have health concerns. They are doing everything they have been told to do. They requested a ballot using code 2A. They have been self-quarantining and living in isolation. But the state is not doing enough to make sure these faithful voters can vote safely.

The witness signature requirement unnecessarily puts voters’ health at risk. The voter requested the absentee ballot from the Department of Elections, was mailed the ballot by their local registrar, the voter marks the ballot and returns the ballot in the enclosed envelop to the registrar.  The intervention of a witness is unnecessary and besides being a barrier to voting, poses a health risk the voter was trying to avoid by requesting the absentee ballot in the first place.

The Commissioner of Elections did the right thing by allowing voters to use excuse 2A in order to receive an absentee ballot during this public health crisis.  Now it is his responsibility to remove the witness requirement so that voters can also cast their ballots in safety. That is why we have joined the ACLU and the ACLU of Virginia to sue the Commissioner and the State Board of Elections. We are asking the court to prohibit the state from enforcing the witness requirement for all 2020 elections so that everyone can exercise their right to vote while staying safe.