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Voting access, eligibility will be key topics in upcoming General Assembly session

Weeks after an election that saw unprecedented early balloting amid the pandemic, voting will again be a focus for Virginia lawmakers in the General Assembly session that starts Jan. 13.

Democrats, who gained the majority in 2020, continue efforts to expand access to voting. Republicans have introduced a number of bills to heighten scrutiny of who is eligible to vote.

Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, says he will introduce bills meant to halt confusion that resulted on Election Night. Republicans dominated the balloting among the 1.6 million Virginians who voted in person on Election Day and Democrats dominated the 2.8 million early votes cast in person or by mail.

Some local registrars did not post their early vote totals until after 11 p.m. on Nov. 3, which led to late shifts toward the Democrats. Deeds said in a newsletter to his constituents that he will introduce a bill to require all localities to count absentee ballots in the same manner.“Late swings in election totals creates a perception that something is amiss when that is certainly not the case,” he wrote. “We have to do better to remove any perception of wrongdoing.”

Problems arose because “we allowed localities to count the votes in different ways,” Deeds said in a phone interview. “We’ve got a duty to restore faith in the process,” Deeds said, adding: “I have the utmost faith in the integrity of the election.”

Deeds said he also will introduce legislation to codify permanently some reforms adopted in 2020 due to the pandemic, such as allowing absentee voters “to deposit those ballots in secure drop boxes.”

Among the election-related measures lawmakers already have filed:

Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, is again seeking a constitutional amendment that would lift restrictions on qualifications to vote for people who have been convicted of a felony or adjudicated mentally incompetent.

Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, is proposing to repeal the requirement that an absentee ballot be opened in the presence of a witness and signed by the witness.

Sens. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria and Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, are chief patrons of legislation in which Virginia would join the Popular Vote Compact. That is an agreement among states that pledge to award their electoral votes to the presidential ticket that wins the popular vote nationally.

Del. Mark Cole, R-Spotsylvania, proposes to require the general registrar of each county and city to provide for a live video recording of each polling place while absentee ballots are cast, votes are counted, and returns are completed, and of each central absentee precinct while ballots are handled and returns are completed.

Del. Ronnie Campbell, R-Rockbridge, is proposing that the state registrar of vital records send the Department of Elections a weekly list of people who have died so that elections officials can promptly update voter rolls. Currently, according to a summary of Campbell’s legislation, elections officials receive a monthly update.

Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, wants to require general registrars to verify that the name, date of birth, and Social Security number of someone applying for voter registration match the information on file in the Social Security Administration database or other database approved by the State Board of Elections. The legislation also would require that registrars verify the name, date of birth and Social Security number of all registered voters annually by Aug. 1. The legislation would take effect in July 2023.

Virginia’s first two elections of the year come up Tuesday. Candidates are vying in Prince William County to fill the seat of former Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, who stepped down to concentrate full time on her run for governor; and in Norfolk, where former Del. Joe Lindsey, a Democrat, retired in order to become a general district court judge.