GOP-Dominated Panels Kill Absentee-Voting Measures

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File photo of an electronic voting machine. (credit: J.D. Pooley/Getty Images)

File photo of an electronic voting machine. (credit: J.D. Pooley/Getty Images)

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RICHMOND, Va. — Two Republican-dominated General Assembly panels have again killed efforts to allow no-excuses absentee voting in Virginia and join 34 states that allow early voting.

On party-line votes of 4-2, a House Privileges and Elections subcommittee met around dawn and killed six House bills that would have allowed unrestricted early voting, with any registered voter able to vote absentee without having to state a reason. Advocates said the measures would have reduced waiting times that exceeded four hours at some polling places in November.

Later in the day, the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee killed legislation to allow no-excuses, in-person absentee voting on an 8-7 party-line vote.

The House subcommittee also voted 4-2 to kill a bill to allow parents or legal guardians of children 4 or younger and another to allow Virginians in areas under a presidential or gubernatorial emergency declaration to vote absentee without an excuse.

The subcommittee and the full Senate committee, however, did advances measure that would allow Virginians 65 or older to vote absentee without citing any other reason.

One of the session’s most controversial bills — an effort by Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, to require photo identification for access to the ballot — was postponed to a later subcommittee meeting.

House supporters of the no-excuses absentee voting measure — five Democrats and one Republican — said it would have addressed various concerns: more convenient hours for working families, more manageable crowds on Election Day, and the privacy of applications needed to vote absentee.

“In my district, we have individuals working two, three, sometimes four jobs, and coming to vote on a random Tuesday in the middle of the week is nearly impossible for them,” said one of the Democratic sponsors, Alfonso Lopez of Arlington. Added flexibility of voting hours, he said, would “increase access to democracy.”

A GOP sponsor, Ron Villanueva of Virginia Beach, said he vouched for the bill because of daunting lines outside polling places in his district in November. He cited average wait times of more than 4½ hours and said the measure would have made the process more efficient, though not perfect.

Local election registrars in the cramped, tiny meeting room generally spoke in favor of greater access to absentee voting to alleviate the Election Day crush and the demands on workers at the polls, which open at 6 a.m. and close at 7 p.m. — or when the last person in line at that time casts a vote.

But some registrars also noted that the changes would come at a cost.

“We don’t want to speak in opposition to it,” said Jake Washburn, the general election registrar for Albemarle County. “We’re for it. It may be the greatest thing since sliced bread. But it will have a fiscal impact on all registrars’ offices.”

Winifred Sowder of Williamsburg said that because of the tiny size of her office, increased in-person absentee voting would be burdensome.

“It’s not that we don’t want to do it, but I don’t know where we’d get the money or where we would get the space to accommodate the citizens,” Sowder said.

That drew a rebuke from Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax.

“It’s a little depressing to come here and hear the people who run our elections — and I don’t know what it says about us as a society — say that this is going to cost us too much to have their franchise,” Sickles said moments before the vote. “If they cannot find a larger room in Williamsburg city, that is really depressing.”

The four Republican delegates who voted to kill the bill were S. Chris Jones of Suffolk, John Cox of Hanover, Margaret Ransone of Westmoreland and subcommittee Chairman John Cosgrove of Chesapeake.

Del. Danny Marshall’s bill to add retirement age to the list of a dozen acceptable excuses for absentee voting was advanced to the full Privileges and Elections Committee on a unanimous vote.

Jones, who moved to kill the other bills to expand absentee voting, said he believes many of the Election Day problems will be resolved with the new retirement age exception.

Jones said he believes in voting on Election Day and that people who value voting will find a way.

“My wife used to go vote with a child with no problem,” he said. “I work long hours, some 15-, 18-hour days. I understand that. We can’t make a bill to address every issue that someone might have.”

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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