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Legislators debate early voting

Monday, December 3, 2012

By PAUL COLLINS - Bulletin Staff Writer

Three of this area’s state legislators are divided on whether they would support no-excuse, in-person early voting in Virginia to alleviate some of the long waits to vote that occurred on Election Day Nov. 6.

Del. Charles Poindexter said Virginia’s current election system has worked well — “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he said — and he sees some drawbacks to allowing voters to cast ballots early in person without an excuse.

Del. Don Merricks said he would not be opposed to no-excuse, in-person early voting in concept, but a lot of logistical issues would need to be worked out. Del. Danny Marshall said he would favor such early voting if it could be done at registrar’s offices.

State Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Glade Hill, could not be reached.

According to published reports, many voters in the state’s most populous cities and counties were standing in long lines well after the polls closed on election night Nov. 6. A Richmond Times Dispatch article quoted Virginia State Board of Elections Secretary Donald Palmer as saying there were long lines in Richmond, Arlington, Virginia Beach, Roanoke, Hampton and Fairfax County.

Virginia currently offers in-person and mail absentee voting but not no-excuse, in-person early voting. Voters must meet one of more than a dozen eligibility requirements to vote absentee.

The Virginia State Board of Elections website says absentee voting in person begins at least 45 days before most elections and ends on the Saturday before the election.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures website, in 32 states and the District of Columbia, any qualified voter may cast a ballot in person during a designated period before Election Day. No excuse or justification is required.

Merricks, R-Pittsylvania County, said if such early voting “would free up some of the lines, it might be a good thing.” But it should not be an imposition on voting places, he said.

A lot of logistics would have to be worked out, he said. Places such as Pittsylvania County might need several voting places where people could vote early, while the city of Martinsville might need only one, he speculated.

“I don’t think early voting needs to be a long period of time,” he said.

However, he added, “I haven’t really given it (no-excuse, in-person early voting) a whole lot of thought.”

Marshall, R-Danville, said, “My daughter lives north of Greensboro (in Guilford County, N.C.). They have early voting. She does it the first day, and (there’s) still a line.”

He said he likes that people can vote at their convenience during the designated period of early voting in North Carolina.

“I would be in favor of early voting (in Virginia) with one caveat: that you do it at the local registrar’s office,” Marshall said. He added that it could be quite expensive if all the voting places were required to be open to accommodate in-person early voting.

“I think it (no-excuse, in-person early voting) would be a good thing, but the devil is always be in the details,” Marshall said. Keep it honest, and make it easy to vote, he said.

“I think we should do everything we can to encourage people to vote,” he added.

Poindexter, R-Glade Hill, said he feels the current system of having everyone vote on Election Day, except those who have an excuse to vote absentee, levels the playing field.

Poindexter said he is concerned that if Virginia had no-excuse, in-person early voting, if someone had voted early and new information came out before the election, the person could not change his mind.

And he asked: What if a candidate became incapacitated from, say, a heart attack or stroke, or died before the election?

He also said he thinks Election Day voting sends a message about the importance of citizenship. He noted that he was “amazed” at the number of parents in the district he saw bring their children with them when they went to vote on Election Day.

There has been a discussion in the General Assembly in recent years about having no-excuse early voting, but the legislature has kept the current system, he said.

According to the Virginia General Assembly website, state Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax County, has pre-filed S.B. 702 for the 2013 General Assembly to consider. It provides that qualified voters may vote absentee in person without providing an excuse or reason for not being able to vote in person on Election Day. The bill retains the present statutory list of specific reasons entitling a voter to cast an absentee ballot for those who vote absentee by mail.

Howell told The Virginian-Pilot: “Waiting in line for four hours is outrageous and punitive, really.” She added, “I would just hope the delegates and senators would listen to their constituents, because they’re really angry.”

Howell has filed similar bills each of the past six years, The Virginian-Pilot reported.


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