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Proposals to expand voting access

RICHMOND

Gov. Ralph Northam wants to expand voting access for the Nov. 3 General Election.

Northam introduced the measures during a virtual joint meeting of the House and Senate Appropriations and Finance committees on Aug. 18. Legislators were expected to consider the proposals immediately, the governor’s office said in an announcement.

In response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the governor’s voting-related initiatives include $2 million set aside in Northam’s proposed budget for prepaid return postage on all absentee ballots sent out for the upcoming election. It also includes language that permits localities to use drop boxes or implement drop-off locations for residents who choose to vote absentee. The state’s Department of Elections would be responsible for setting security standards.

Finally, Northam’s proposal would also allow voters to fix errors on their absentee ballot. Under the current rules, if a voter makes an error, they cannot fix it and their ballot may be discarded. Because many people will be voting absentee for the first time in November, this change is intended to help ensure all votes are counted.

“As we continue to navigate this pandemic, we must take additional steps to make it easier to vote, not harder,” said Northam. “With these measures, we will protect public health and ensure Virginians can safely exercise their right to vote in the November election. Whether you put your ballot in the mail or vote in-person, voting will be safe and secure in our Commonwealth.”

Also on Aug. 18, U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine urged Virginia’s local “registrars to do everything in their power to ensure that all Virginians can access their right to vote,” in spite of the coronavirus pandemic and recent changes to U.S. Postal Service operations that critics say could undermine voting at a time when more people than ever might choose to vote absentee due to the coronavirus.

In the letter, which was sent to all of the state’s 133 local registrars, Warner and Kaine asked the voting officials to immediately alert them and the Department of Elections regarding any issues related to safeguarding voting access and opportunities. Their letter was released to the public shortly before Postmaster General Louis DeJoy announced he was suspending any postal service operational or policy changes until after the election.

“Americans are experiencing great hardship as a result of the ongoing public health emergency,” Warner and Kaine said. “For months, we have advocated for additional resources for local election officials grappling with the unprecedented voter turnout that is expected this November in the midst of a pandemic.”

Virginia voters who wish to receive an absentee ballot for the November election may apply online at elections.virginia.gov/voterinformation. Absentee ballots will be mailed starting Sept. 18.

NATE DELESLINE III is a staff writer at The Smithfield Times. Contact him at Nate.Delesline@SmithfieldTimes.com.