AG McDonnell proposes several election reforms in Virginia

By Drew Smith | Dec 16, 2008

Bob McDonnell (R)

RICHMOND, Va. (Legal Newsline) -- Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell has announced a number of election reforms he is including in his legislative package during the upcoming session of the General

McDonnell, a Republican, is planning a run for the governor's seat in the next election. He said the previous election revealed several needed reforms to state law.

"Democracy is alive and well in Virginia," McDonnell said. "We saw that clearly this past Election Day with a record number of first-time voters. However, for our democratic process to stay healthy we must constantly seek prudent reforms and improvements based on what we learn each election."

Among the proposed reforms is a call to reduce the number of voters necessary to create a voting precinct. McDonnell claims last month's election saw excessively long waits of three to six hours at polling places.

He is also proposing to abolish the law that prohibits voters from wearing political clothing and campaign-related items while at a polling place.

"Virginians waiting for hours to vote clearly demonstrates we need more precincts. Also, there is no threat to our system of fair elections when a voter wears a hat or shirt of a specific candidate into a polling place," McDonnell said.

The attorney general also supports a law to appoint a 'closing official' at each precinct to help fatigued election officials who have to count ballots after the polls close. He claims this would reduce the number of errors in counting votes.

Finally, he is proposing to fix problems with the mailing and counting of military absentee ballots.

"Poll workers generously give of their time and effort to make our democratic system work. They should have the help they need to get the job done. The addition of a 'closing official' at each polling place will ensure accurate counting of votes at the end of the day," McDonell said.

McDonnell's proposed reforms are as follows:

Voter Relief Measures

- Reduce Voting Lines: Lower the number of registered voters needed to create an additional precinct to expedite the voting process and reduce the time voters wait in line to vote.

- Election Paraphernalia: Amend current law to allow voters to wear campaign t-shirts, buttons and stickers within the polling place. This provision would not affect the current prohibition on active electioneering in the polling place. While not unconstitutional, the current law is an inhibition of a healthy political environment on Election Day.

- Voter Notification When Voting Precinct Changes: Require that when a voter's precinct is changed prior to an election that the general registrar contact them via email and/or phone, if such information is available, in addition to sending a new voter registration card indicating the new voting precinct. Some voters were greatly inconvenienced waiting for long periods in line only to find out that their precinct had changed.

- Absentee Voting for First Responders: Expand absentee voting to first responders, including law-enforcement officers, firefighters, rescue squads and emergency medical personnel. Virginia does not have "early voting" like some states, so allowing these public servants to vote absentee is appropriate and reasonable.

- Absentee Ballot Measure: The attorney general is proposing legislation to ensure that absentee ballots are sent expeditiously to the voter to allow sufficient time for voting absentee, including by overseas military members. During this election some absentee ballots were sent to voters too late for their timely return, resulting in litigation.

In addition, the attorney general will strongly support Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling's legislation to ensure that all overseas ballots cast by military members are counted by removing the language in state law requiring the address and signature of a witness to the voter's signature, which conflicts with the federal law. This statute became a matter of much controversy, and was ultimately resolved by an opinion of the attorney general.

Election Integrity Measures

- Election Official Relief Act: Require the appointment of a "closing official" to accurately count ballots and review tapes, screens and documents. Currently election officials typically work 13 hours or more prior to closing the precinct, leading to the possibility of more human errors, and more adjustments during canvassing. The closing official shall arrive no earlier than one hour prior to the close of the precinct so there is a fresh election official overseeing all aspects of closing the precinct and reporting accurate election results. There will also be a requirement for the appointment of more election officials when the local electoral board determines they are needed.

- Prevent Dual Registration and Voting: The attorney general recommends increasing criminal penalties for a voter who knowingly votes or assists another to vote in a jurisdiction where the voter is not qualified to vote. The application to register to vote will also contain a statement informing the voter that if they vote more than once in the same election they shall be guilty of a felony. The attorney general is also working with the State Board of Elections to develop other ways, within existing law, to maintain an accurate voter registration list to prevent voters from being registered in more than one place.

- Voter Residence: Amend the statutory definition of "residence or resident," including the criteria for domicile and place of abode. This amendment will track language provided by Virginia courts and help clarify ambiguity that currently exists in the code. This will also require the State Board of Elections to promulgate uniform guidelines to assist local registrars with determining a voter's residence.

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