Legislation to allow no-excuse absentee voting was rejected by a House Privileges and Elections Committee during the General Assembly session, despite the bill's backing from Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine.
Kaine had moved to allow all registered voters to cast absentee ballots in-person at registrars' offices during the 45-day absentee voting period.
The voters would not have to provide a reason for their absentee submission, but those who want to submit ballots through the postal service would still have to meet one of the requirements presently in place.
"Right now you can only vote absentee if you meet one of 17 specified criteria," said Gordon Hickey, Kaine's press secretary. "The governor believes that anyone for any reason can go and vote absentee."
In the event that this legislation on absentee voting had been passed, Virginia would join 26 other states that already offer no-excuse absentee voting. Kaine said in a press release that by allowing all voters to cast an absentee ballot in person, the workload of local registrars and poll workers would be reduced and dispersed.
"We can remove some of the practical barriers that prevent people from participating in the democratic process," Kaine said. "This year showed that high volume can cause problems in a process that should be as smooth as possible."
Contrarily, opponents of the early-voting bill cited increased costs for the reason behind their dissention. Delegate Dave Nutter of the New River Valley noted that while registrars in the area were behind the bill, downsides still remain.
Citing the recent election turnout in North Carolina, a state allowing no-excuse absentee voting, Nutter said Montgomery County could expect up to 60 percent of the predicted turnout in the first several days.
"That would be (around) 24,000 people," Nutter said. "(The registrar's office) is not too big. There are going to be a lot of issues in facility, infrastructure and personnel to take care of that."
Because Kaine does not have a voice in the Senate or House, Sen. Janet Howell (D-Fairfax) elected to patron the bill in the Senate, while Delegate Rosalyn Dance (D-Petersburg) presented the bill to the House of Delegates.
"Delegate Dance believes that if it is your right to vote, nothing should keep you back from doing so," Lashrecse Jones, Dance's legislative aide, said. "Delegate Dance wants every individual in Virginia to not have to think if they qualify for absentee reasons."
Jones added that regardless of the obligation a registered voter may have, they still are entitled to vote.
"Virginia is one of the more restrictive states when it comes to voting," Jones said. "People work, they have responsibilities they have to handle, they can't always be available to stand in line on Election Day. She is aiming to give everyone the opportunity to do that."
Casting an in-person absentee ballot has become increasingly popular, with approximately 320,000 submitted in Virginia alone in the most recent presidential election. Hickey said that had the bill been passed, measures would likely be implemented in time for the 2010 statewide elections.
And by dissolving the need for an excuse to vote absentee, those in favor of the bill expect the voting process as a whole to be streamlined.
"It makes voting more accessible to those who might not be able to make it to the polls for whatever reason," Hickey said.
Nutter said that passing a no-excuse absentee ballot casting bill would also not necessarily guarantee a higher voter turnout.
"I've heard in a lot of states that it doesn't increase voter turnout," Nutter said. "One could argue that it could be an incumbent protection program. If people are going in to vote early, they're probably going in to vote for the incumbent because they know him better. I'm interested in broadening our absentee balloting program, but I want to hear more details."
The subcommittee that rejected the bill is composed of four Republicans and two Democrats. The vote on the measures was split along partisan boundaries. Delegates John A. Cosgrove of Chesapeake, R. Steven Landes of Augusta County, S. Chris Jones of Suffolk and Jeffrey M. Frederick of Prince William County all voted against the proposal, while Dance of Petersburg and David L. Englin of Alexandria voted in favor of its passing.
Because the subcommittee does not have the ultimate power to kill the bill, a member can still move to have the legislation voted on again. However, a majority vote would be required for it to be reconsidered. As the committee is divided down partisan lines, a vote seems unlikely.