Virginia State Capitol
The state capitol. Photo by Markus Schmidt.

RICHMOND – A record breaking 4 million Virginians voted absentee in the 2020 and 2021 statewide elections combined – a dramatic shift accelerated by the impact of the pandemic. But this trend could be reversed if Republican lawmakers have their way as members of the General Assembly are currently weighing almost two dozen measures aiming to restrict or limit absentee voting.  

One such proposal – House Bill 34 sponsored by Del. Ronnie Campbell, R-Rockbridge County – calls for a statewide repeal of the many drop-off locations for the return of absentee ballots. It cleared a House panel by a 6-3 party-line vote Tuesday. 

Campbell told a subcommittee of the Republican-controlled Privileges & Elections Committee that local registrars in his district had asked him to file legislation that would remove the drop-off locations from the election process, instead requiring voters to deliver their ballots by mail or directly to a registrar.

“In talking to my registrars, this is probably one of the biggest problems they had in how to secure, where to put them, and things of that nature. Their comment to me was ‘if you could get rid of them, that would be a big help,’” Campbell said.  

Virginia was among the first states to make absentee voting more accessible when Democrats approved ‘no-excuse’ absentee ballots, which made voting early and by mail available to all Virginians. The new law drew criticism from some Republicans, especially in light of the 2020 presidential election when the Democratic nominee Joe Biden comfortably defeated President Donald Trump, a Republican, by a 10% margin in the commonwealth. 

However, post-election audits by the state found no significant amount of fraud in both the 2020 and 2021 elections, which prompted Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico County, a member of the committee, to ask Campbell whether he thought that the November election of Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin was fraudulent. Campbell was one of three House Republicans who was stripped off a committee assignment last year after he had signed a letter casting doubt on the results of the presidential election and urged then-Vice President Mike Pence to block Biden’s victory in Virginia.

“Maybe we should investigate whether Glenn Youngkin really won, since it strikes me that if in his neck of the woods drop boxes really are fraudulent, they probably helped the current sitting governor?” VanValkenburg asked. Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt County, ruled the Democrat’s question not germaine, “because it was not attributable to the bill.”

Pamela Berg with the Legal Women Voters of Virginia spoke against Campbell’s proposal. “Not all voters cast absentee ballots by mail or in person, some desire the assurance or timeliness of hand delivery. Some lack a residential address or reliable mail service. Some voters do not have stamps. Some cannot vote in person during polling hours due to work, family responsibilities or illness,” she said. 

Drop boxes allow these voters to participate in the democratic process, knowing that their ballots are secure,” Berg said. She cited detailed guidance from the Department of Elections that governs permissible containers and requires all drop off locations to be either under physical or video surveillance constantly. 

“Ballots are collected daily by authorized individuals only with strict provisions to save for the ballots at all times and maintain proper chains of custody. No ballot can be counted unless it is inside the secure envelope provided, so once the ballot is processed the voter cannot vote again,” Berg said. “Drop off locations were a great convenience to voters as a safe and secure way to cast a ballot.”

Campbell’s proposal is now headed to the full committee. 

Markus Schmidt

Markus Schmidt is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach him at markus@cardinalnews.org.