RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — Virginia’s attorney general and a leading voting rights group have reached a deal to allow voters to file an absentee ballot without having a witness sign it, removing a hurdle for those most vulnerable to Covid-19.
At issue were the health and safety risks involved with the state’s requirement for all absentee voters to open and fill out their ballot in front of another adult.
The League of Women Voters of Virginia and three registered voters, represented by attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union, sued state officials this month, seeking an injunction to block the witness signature requirement in light of the ongoing pandemic.
While the complaint was lobbed against the State Board of Elections and its leaders, Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring authored a joint brief with the plaintiffs in support of a consent decree announced Tuesday that allows absentee ballots without witness signatures for those who believe they cannot safely have a witness present.
“The fast-paced nature of this case and upcoming elections dictated a particularly short and intense negotiation period,” the brief states. “But the parties’ negotiation was conducted in good faith, involved compromises on both sides leading to a cabined, fair, adequate, and reasonable deal, and resulted in an agreement that serves the public interests of election integrity, access to the ballot, and protecting public health.”
The agreement still has to be approved U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon, a Bill Clinton appointee presiding over the Lynchburg federal court.
Virginia has a statewide primary election scheduled for June 23, when Republicans will choose their nominee to take on Democratic U.S. Senator Mark Warner in the Nov. 3 general election.
Under the consent decree, which applies only to the June election, absentee ballots will state in bold print that voters can disregard the witness signature requirement if they believe they cannot safely have a witness present while filling out their ballot. It also requires Elections Commissioner Christopher Piper to take additional steps to inform the public about the temporary rule change.
Herring applauded the agreement in a statement Tuesday morning.
“This agreement is a win for Virginians because it will protect both the health and voting rights of those who would otherwise have to violate social distancing requirements and jeopardize their well-being just to exercise their fundamental right to vote,” the attorney general said. “No Virginian should have to choose between their health and their right to vote during this pandemic.”
Deb Wake, president of the Virginia chapter of the League of Women Voters, said in an email that she hopes Judge Moon will approve the agreement, saying it will preserve the right to vote for all Virginians and promote public health during the June primaries.
Eden Heilman, legal director for the ACLU of Virginia, similarly praised the agreement as a way to maintain public health.
“The commonwealth must keep the public safe and protect the right to vote,” she said in a statement. “This agreement is a step in that direction.”
In addition to the GOP Senate race, which features a handful of candidates, the June 23 election also includes some Democratic congressional primary contests. Republicans in several congressional districts have decided to nominate their candidates through conventions instead of voting, although the virus outbreak has complicated that plan as well.
Virginia Delegate Marcus Simon, D-Falls Church, the vice chair of the House Privileges and Elections Committee, called the consent decree a win for all Virginians.
“As demand for vote at home alternatives to the traditional election day ritual continues to grow, we will need to revisit our absentee voting requirements in the legislature soon,” he said in a text message.
But not everyone was happy about the change. John March, a spokesperson for the Virginia Republican Party, said in a statement that Herring’s abandonment of state law harms election integrity.
“This is yet another example of Democrats using a pandemic to advance their far-left agenda,” he said.
The consent decree is the latest development in several legal battles over the June primary amid the Covid-19 pandemic. In addition to disputes over local GOP conventions, a Richmond judge loosened ballot signature requirements for Republican Senate candidates after complaints that the virus had stifled collection efforts.
Like many states, Virginia has been rocked by the coronavirus crisis, which as of Tuesday morning has infected over 14,000 Virginians and left almost 500 dead, according to the state’s health department.
With the June primary fast approaching and municipal races in May ahead of it, Democratic Governor Ralph Northam has worked to change their dates after Wisconsin voters braved the pandemic to cast in-person ballots in that state’s controversial primary election earlier this month. At least 19 Wisconsinites contracted Covid-19 while voting, state health officials said.
A legislative effort to move the May local elections failed last week during an annual veto session. Northam moved back both election dates as far as he could, about two weeks, without support from lawmakers.
The governor issued a statewide stay-at-home order last month that is set to expire June 10.