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Youngkin blocks Democratic bills dealing with elections

Vetoes affect ranked choice voting and voting rights lawsuits

By Graham Moomaw, Virginia Mercury - April 11, 2024
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Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin addresses the crowd during an early voting rally Thursday Sep. 21, 2023, in Petersburg, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin addresses the crowd during an early voting rally Thursday Sep. 21, 2023, in Petersburg, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

After years of partisan debate over the state of Virginia’s election system, Gov. Glenn Youngkin blocked Democratic bills meant to continue the adoption of ranked choice voting, expand legal protections for voting rights and modify data practices to avoid canceling the registrations of eligible voters.

The governor also vetoed a measure that would have expanded the state’s existing ban on guns at polling places and nixed a bill that would have added photo identification cards issued by nursing homes and other state-licensed medical facilities to Virginia’s list of acceptable IDs for voting.

Youngkin characterized several of the proposals as unnecessary complications, while several Democratic lawmakers said the governor was letting politics get in the way of good governance.

“It really lets us know who’s on what side of protecting our democracy,” said Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News, who chairs the House Privileges and Elections Committee.

Voting lawsuits

Youngkin vetoed a bill sponsored by Price that would have strengthened a state-level voting rights law she championed in 2021 meant to prevent discrimination against minority groups.

Under that law, the attorney general’s office and impacted voters can file lawsuits in response to perceived voting rights violations. Price’s 2024 bill would have also allowed advocacy groups focused on voting access to sue over planned changes to voting locations or reductions in hours.

In an interview, Price said the goal was to create more ways to prevent voter disenfranchisement instead of leaving it solely in the hands of the attorney general’s office and voters themselves.

“In actual practice, we’re seeing that people have lives, people have jobs, people may not know how to navigate court systems,” Price said.

The vetoed bill also would have added new rules requiring localities to come up with more detailed plans for satellite voting locations and preventing last-minute changes. Last year, the Richmond Electoral Board caused an uproar by announcing the city would not open two satellite voting sites for early voting as it had in previous years, a decision reversed after activists said it would disproportionately impact minorities and Richmonders who rely on public transportation.

Youngkin’s veto statement primarily took issue with the bill’s expansion of who can file voting rights lawsuits.

“Current law allows voters to sue for violations under the Virginia Voter Rights Act,” Youngkin’s veto said. “The proposal will lead to administrative burdens and legal complexities that could hinder the fair and efficient administration of elections in our commonwealth.”

Ranked choice voting

Though Youngkin won the Republican nomination for governor in 2021 through a form of ranked choice voting the Virginia GOP used at a convention, he vetoed a bill that would have clarified the process of how the voting method can be used in government-run elections for some local offices.

Current Virginia law allows local governments to adopt ranked choice voting, which allows voters to rank candidates based on who they like best and tabulates results over several rounds in which votes for the lowest-performing candidates are redistributed to others still in the running, for city council and county board races only. Arlington County is already using ranked choice voting in local primaries, and democracy reform advocates are trying to get more local governments to embrace it.

The 2024 ranked choice voting bill initially would have allowed the method to be used in any local election, including school boards and constitutional offices. However, it was scaled back to focus mainly on “cleanup” language clarifying how the process should work and creating state standards for tabulation software and voting equipment, according to Sen. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, the bill’s sponsor.

“It’s recognizing that ranked choice voting is here … and that a lot of localities have the choice of using ranked choice voting,” VanValkenburg said.

Some advocates for ranked-choice voting point to Youngkin’s 2021 victory as evidence of how the process can encourage consensus picks and disfavor the most extreme or polarizing candidates.

One of Youngkin’s opponents that year was former GOP state Sen. Amanda Chase, a hard-right figure with diehard support among some conservative activists but limited general-election appeal. The Virginia GOP’s choices to hold a convention with ranked choice voting minimized the chances of a Chase victory and allowed Republicans who preferred a more mainstream candidate to consolidate support behind Youngkin even if he wasn’t their first choice.

The governor’s veto called ranked choice voting new to both Virginia and the nation and said “legitimate questions” about it need to be resolved before going further.

“Concerns have been raised about its use in general elections where some voters have found it confusing,” Youngkin said in his veto. “A heightened risk of mistakenly erroneous ballot submissions raises concerns about disenfranchisement and an increased lack of voter confidence in election results.”

VanValkenburg said he feels politics, particularly the general hostility and suspicion toward ranked choice voting from many Republicans, is the real explanation for Youngkin’s veto, even though the legislation wasn’t a simple question of whether ranked choice voting should or shouldn’t exist in Virginia.

“I think there are Democrats in the General Assembly who don’t like ranked choice voting,” he said. “But that’s not what this bill was.”

Voter roll maintenance

Price filed another bill in response to widely publicized data issues last year that led Virginia election officials to wrongfully cancel the voter registrations of roughly 3,400 people who were eligible to vote despite past felony convictions.

Her proposal would have established new data integrity criteria requiring election officials to reach a certain level of confidence before canceling the registration of a voter who may have moved, gone inactive or become ineligible after committing a crime. It also would have created a new process for giving voters a chance to dispute information suggesting they had a new felony conviction, and force election officials to keep public records showing who was removed from voter rolls and why.

Youngkin suggested delaying the measure for a year so officials can conduct a multi-agency study on how data is collected and shared for the purposes of maintaining accurate voter rolls. He recommended that study be completed by Nov. 30 and asked that the General Assembly be required to reapprove the bill next year.

Price said she’s going to ask her colleagues to reject Youngkin’s amendment.

“Y’all already did an investigation,” Price said, referring to a review the Office of the State Inspector General completed last December that concluded the erroneous cancellations in 2023 were accidental.

“We don’t need to study it. We know what happened. And this bill is an answer to it.”

Youngkin also vetoed Democratic bills that would have restored Virginia’s participation in ERIC, a multi-state voter data sharing program that has been abandoned by many red states after coming under fire from conservative activists.

In his veto statement on the ERIC bill, Youngkin said there were valid concerns about how the organization was being run.

“I have been explicitly clear about my affirmation of the legitimacy of our elections,” the governor’s veto said. “My focus is safeguarding Virginians’ private information and continuously improving an efficient, cost-effective voter registration system.”

Expanding list of acceptable IDs

A relatively minor bill would have required election officials to accept identification cards issued by state-licensed private medical facilities such as nursing homes.

Virginia no longer requires a photo ID to vote, and the list of acceptable forms of identification is already extensive. It includes driver’s licenses whether current or expired, student IDs from Virginia colleges, nursing home IDs from government facilities and a variety of other official documents showing the voter’s name and address.

Youngkin’s veto noted that Virginians can also get a free ID card specifically for voting.

“Expanding this list presents additional complexities for poll workers in discerning which forms of identification are acceptable,” Youngkin’s veto said.

Any voter without ID is asked to sign a sworn statement verifying their identity and officials do additional research to determine if their ballot should be counted.

Wider gun bans near election sites

State law already prohibits firearms within 40 feet of polling places. A bill approved by the General Assembly would have grown that buffer to 100 feet and applied the restriction to satellite voting sites and any buildings where recounts are being performed or where an electoral board meeting is taking place.

Youngkin’s veto suggested the bill would create a minefield of no-gun zones firearm owners would have to avoid that would shift according to the election calendar. Brandishing a firearm to intimidate would-be voters, Youngkin noted, is already a crime.

“This legislation proposes intricate time-and-place restrictions on carrying firearms, potentially turning law-abiding citizens into unintentional criminals if they are unaware of the presence of a ballot drop-off box or an electoral board meeting,” the governor’s veto said.

This story was originally published in the Virginia Mercury


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