Commentary: Elections Matter

Commentary: Elections Matter

As a member of the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee, I support fair, open and efficient elections, which are fundamental to the maintenance of bedrock democratic principles. After a hotly contested presidential election, and leading into statewide elections, this is a good time for an update on the state of Virginia election law.

Several proposed Constitutional amendments, bills and budget items concerning voter registration, absentee voting, redistricting reform, and the responsibilities of the Department of Elections have been making their way through the General Assembly. If enacted, they would have a profound impact on future elections.

Last October, the House and Senate Committees on Privileges and Elections jointly held a five-and-a-half hour hearing regarding Virginia’s readiness for the 2016 election. Republican committee members expressed grievances regarding voter registration, placing blame on election officials, despite declining to fund past budget proposals for the department during the 2016 session. These funding increases would have addressed technical issues with the online portal known as the Virginia Election & Registration Information System (VERIS).

Days later, VERIS crashed.

This prompted a federal judge to extend the voter registration deadline, and Gov. Terry McAuliffe to propose $3.9 million in much-needed funds for the administration of elections. This funding request provided senators and delegates an opportunity to ensure the implementation of critical upgrades to our election systems, by funding our elections technology and staff. The budget adopted by the House of Delegates included the proposed funding. However, the Senate budget removed this funding, stripping allocations for VERIS improvements, and even removed money for printing additional voter registration forms and absentee ballots. This included declining to approve $2 million to replace federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) funds that will expire later this year. HAVA funds currently cover 60 percent of the Department of Elections operating budget.

I spoke against this action on the Senate floor arguing that removing this funding is a drastic cut that will undermine the ability of the department to complete its critical mission of ensuring the integrity of our elections process.

Several pieces of legislation to improve access to the ballot box were introduced by my Democratic colleagues and myself. Sen. George Barker (D-Fairfax), Sen. Jennifer Wexton (D-Loudoun), and I all introduced legislation to allowing senior citizens to vote absentee. Sen. Lynwood Lewis (D-Accomack) worked to repeal Virginia’s restrictive voter ID laws enacted in 2013. I also worked to expand the availability of early voting to all Virginians. Unfortunately all of these measures were defeated along party lines in committee.

Instead, legislation passed the Senate that would place burdens on voters and our electoral system. A bill introduced by Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Chesterfield) would require voters to submit a photocopy of their photo ID when applying for an absentee ballot. The logic behind this is faulty, as the stated purpose for requiring photo IDs at polling places is to to verify the voter’s identity. But, when elections officials receive copies of photo IDs in the mail, they have nothing to compare the photocopied likeness to. This is a pointless exercise, and a barrier for some. Nevertheless, this legislation passed the Senate along party lines and has also passed out of committee in the House.

The Senate Finance Committee was provided with an opportunity to extend funding for activities to ensure the accuracy and integrity of the voter rolls. However, they declined to approve money that would support list maintenance, including, removal of deceased individuals, felons, and noncitizens from the rolls, checking for duplicate registrations for those still registered in their state of previous residence.

Another bill (SB1581) would require local voter registrars to annually verify Social Security numbers of each registered voter, despite this information being already verified by the state during a voter’s initial registration.

The full Senate passed a budget and legislation that inhibits smooth engagement in the electoral process. Chesterfield County Registrar Lawrence C. Haake, who has served over 20 years as as the Chesterfield registrar was quoted in the Richmond Times Dispatch as saying “I’m not sure the General Assembly understands the importance of what they are doing, [they are] not supporting elections in the Commonwealth by taking that money.”

There is still hope that this funding would be restored as the House and Senate budgets are reconciled by a conference committee. The chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Chris Jones (R-Suffolk), seemed to confirm this sentiment, saying “There’s nothing more essential than the conduct of our elections.”

I will work with budget conferees toward a final budget that prioritizes the bedrock democratic principle of fair, open and efficient elections by sufficiently funding our election system. Thankfully, Governor McAuliffe is likely to veto all legislation that adds hurdles to participating in the democratic process. I pledge my vote to uphold such vetos.

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It is my continued honor to serve the people of the 30th District.