RICHMOND – In a rare bipartisan move, the Democratic-controlled Senate Privileges & Elections Committee on Tuesday approved a proposal sponsored by state Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, that would require ballots cast before Election Day to be counted in the voter’s precinct, rather than a central one.
For Suetterlein, who had filed similar legislation before, it was a much desired victory after his prior proposals had made it out of the Senate twice but failed in the House of Delegates, where Democrats held a majority at the time.
“This bill is incredibly important, that’s why I’ve been hammering on it the last two years, and that’s why I filed it so early, because of the large number of folks that vote early or by absentee at historically high levels, and I have a feeling that’s likely going to continue,” Suetterlein told the panel Tuesday.
Unlike regular ballots, which are cast in person at the precinct assigned to a voter, Central Absentee Precincts (CAPs) are currently responsible for processing mailed-in absentee ballots, where the envelopes are reviewed and sorted, and ballots are tallied by machine or by hand.
But because the results collected at CAPs are reported as one rather than by the individual precincts, this process often creates election night mirages that distort early vote counts because of the surge in mail-in or absentee ballots.
“That very much can trick even people that might have been very familiar with elections for a long time,” Suetterlein said, citing the confusion during the 2020 mayoral election in Roanoke City and the presidential election that same year. “It’s incredibly important that we get absentees recorded by their precincts because it will help restore more confidence in the election results, it will make it clear that these aren’t election night mirages,” he said.
But the committee amended Suetterlein’s proposal to include language from Senate Bill 306, sponsored by Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath County, that allows for a unique code to be printed on each absentee ballot indicating from which precinct the ballot originates from – except in rare cases when it is necessary to preserve the secrecy of the ballot. This amendment would enable the ballot to be reported by precinct but not be physically sorted, which would support a quicker reporting of results.
The amendment was of particular importance to Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, the committee’s new chair, who expressed concern with the implementation of Suetterlein’s proposed change to election law.
“In your bill it says that the absentee ballots shall be sorted by precinct to which the voter who cast the absentee ballot is assigned,” he told Suetterlein. “In some larger localities like Fairfax County, which has more than 200 precincts, it would require hundreds of thousands of ballots in a presidential election to be hand sorted,” he said.
And Deeds said that without the additional provision from his bill, Suetterlein’s measure would require an even later reporting which would slow down the result. “It builds in more flexibility,” he said of his amendment. Suetterlein said he would happily agree to the change. “My objective is to get the results on election night right,” he said.
Stakeholders from both sides of the political spectrum told the committee that they would support Senate Bill 3 in its amended form.
Clara Wheeler of the Virginia Institute for Public Policy and former member of the Virginia State Board of Elections said that the software to accommodate the requirement under Deeds’ amendment is already available on the optical scan equipment used by most localities. “It requires that the ballots have a specific barcode which can be put on the ballot so the scanner will automatically sort without hand counting. This is important to give people who are running for office and the voters an ability to know how each precinct votes, because we have more and more people voting absentee,” she said.
But Wheeler cautioned that election officials would have to be “educated” on the process, so the offices of elections that are handing out ballots and the registrars’ offices that are distributing mailed out ballots give the voter the right ballot.
Senate Bill 3 will be weighed by the Senate Finance Committee next.
Senate panel advances Suetterlein bill on returning unspent taxes
Also on Tuesday, a Senate panel by a 15-1 vote approved another Suetterlein measure that would allow localities to return unspent personal property taxes – mostly relating to the car tax – to taxpayers. Suetterlein, told the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee that it is important to grant cities and counties such authority because due to the increasing demand in the market of motor vehicles during the pandemic, assessments have been much higher than usual, “so much so that several people will actually see their car tax go up this year substantially, and likely next year as well based on the assessments.”
Suetterlein said that his proposal would allow localities to provide the relief now and then go back to their current rate once the market stabilizes.
A House panel almost two weeks ago backed a nearly identical proposal sponsored by Del. Joe McNamara, R-Roanoke County, who told the House Counties, Cities and Towns subcommittee that some localities he was working with were already in the process of doing so when they learned that this is not permitted under current law. “They were quite surprised,” McNamara said.