All You Need to Know About the 2021 General Assembly’s Work on Election Legislation

March 1, 2021

Janet Boyd, Voter Services, LWV-VA

When you read this article, the General Assembly will have completed its work for both the Regular and Special Sessions this year. Fortunately for Virginia voters, we have good news (with a few disappointments). Governor Northam is expected to sign each of the passed bills noted below, but keep in mind that the effective date for these bills is July 1. The May municipal elections and the June Primaries, as well as any Special Elections before July, will not be conducted under these bills (an exception is noted for the absentee voting rules below). Here’s what happened, by topic:

Absentee/Early Voting/Vote by Mail

This was a priority area for the League this year.  We wanted to make sure that all the improvements to Virginia’s voting processes, initiated last year to address COVID risks, would become permanent, plus some new improvements.  We were largely successful, as passed in HB1888/SB1245. These bills make permanent: drop boxes, curing of absentee ballots, mandatory preprocessing of absentee ballots, and postage paid envelopes for returning ballots by mail. Further, the General Assembly repealed restrictions on the availability of absentee voting for first-time voters who registered by mail. Additionally, ELECT has been instructed to use workgroups to develop processes for both a) addressing concerns about the witness requirement, and b) allocating ballots voted during Early Voting to the voters’ home precincts. Unfortunately, under the final version of SB1097 that passed, the witness signature is still required on absentee ballot envelopes, except during declared health emergencies like COVID,and after this bill goes into effect on July 1, 2021. 

Unlike other bills, the Budget bill as amended, HB1800, includes language ensuring that the law enabling drop-off locations and ballot curing will be effective immediately. Assuming final adoption of the budget bill in the reconvened session in April, those voter protections should be available in time for the May municipal and June Primary Elections.

Additionally, at the option of local electoral boards, Early Voting will be available on Sundays, in HB1968, and registrars may contract with third party providers to print, assemble, and mail absentee ballots, pursuant to SB1239. Another bill, SB1331, mandates a tool to allow voters with a visual impairment or print disability to electronically and accessibly receive and mark an absentee ballot at home using screen reader assistive technology.

Voter Registration

Two new rules were approved to improve voter registration. First, when the online voter registration was unavailable last fall on the final day before the November election, the LWV-VA joined in a lawsuit requiring two extra registration days to accommodate impacted voters. A bill, HB1810, made this permanent, in order to address any similar problem that may occur in the future. Another bill, HB2125, allows 16 year old future voters to register in advance (particularly helpful when students obtain their first driver’s license), beginning in 2022.

Voting Rights Act

This is another League priority. With the preclearance requirement of federal law eliminated by the US Supreme Court, Virginia replaced that rule with its own preclearance requirement for localities changing elections processes or rules that could have disparate impacts based on a voter’s race or color or membership in a language minority group, in HB1890/SB1395.  The preclearance rule provides two pathways for a locality to clear changes, either through a process of providing public notice and receiving comments or through approval by the Office of the Attorney General.

Automatic Restoration of Rights

The General Assembly made progress on another League priority toward providing all Virginians, particularly felons, their 100 percent right to vote, in HJ555/SJ272. The bill allows Virginians to vote for a Constitutional Amendment that provides automatic restoration of rights when a felon leaves prison, instead of ensuring that voting rights are not taken away in the first place.  As with all state constitutional amendments, this law will not become effective until it is passed again by the General Assembly after the November election of the House of Delegates and then passed by the voters in a referendum in the next general election. The League continues to work with General Assembly members to approve full Voting Rights.

Voter Access

A number of bills provide accommodations for particular voters.  Curbside voting rules are consistent across Virginia under HB1921. Another bill, effective in 2024, prevents a Party from using a nomination method that restricts the participation of certain voters, including those in the military, living out of country, students, among others, in HB2020.  Beginning next year, for voters residing in wards or districts, only the qualified voters of a district or ward shall be entitled to vote for the candidates of that district or ward, under HB2198.  Another bill, SB1148, changes the date of the primary election held in June from the second Tuesday in June to the third Tuesday in June, to eliminate conflicts with holding elections in school buildings with students.  Starting in 2022, municipal elections may no longer be in May, but have been moved to November, in SB1157.

Voter Safety

Guns will no longer be permitted within the 40-foot zone around the entrance of a polling location, under HB2081. Additionally, SB1111 removes the current power of officers of election to appoint anyone as a law-enforcement officer within the polling place and the prohibited area.

National Popular Vote

Unfortunately, the General Assembly did not act on the National Popular Vote legislation that would have reformed the electoral vote process for US Presidential Elections, in HB1933/SB1101.

Campaign Finance Reform

This is a new issue area for the LWV-VA, and while we urged a number of improvements, including eliminating personal use of campaign funds (HB1952), dollar limits on contributions (SB1233), and elimination of corporate contributions (HB1756/HB1906/SB1236), none passed.  However, the General Assembly easily passed a resolution, HJ526, forming a new Legislative Subcommittee tasked to study and make recommendations for campaign finance reforms, with citizen and legislator members.

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