Federal court waives witness requirement for Nov. 3 absentee ballots

absentee ballot
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A federal court has approved a consent decree negotiated by the office of Attorney General Mark Herring allowing mail ballots without a witness signature for the Nov. 3 general election.

The action follows a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and ACLU of Virginia on behalf of League of Women Voters of Virginia and several individuals.

The lawsuit, League of Women Voters of Virginia v. Virginia State Board of Elections, was filed in U.S. District Court in Lynchburg.

Under the terms of the approved consent decree, the Commonwealth will accept absentee ballots without the signature of a witness “for voters who believe they may not safely have a witness present while completing their ballot.”

“This agreement is another big win for Virginia voters and for democracy, and it’s another important step in ensuring that we can have free, fair, safe elections this fall despite the challenges presented by the COVID pandemic,” Herring said. “Safe voting has been one of my top priorities for the last six months because no one should ever have to choose between their health and their fundamental right to cast their vote.”

In approving the agreement, Judge Norman K. Moon found that “(t)he same reasons that motivated the Court to approve the parties’ previous consent decree carry even more force today, as the pandemic has resurged.”

A previous agreement, also approved by Judge Moon, promoted safe voting by mail for the June 23rd primaries by allowing for the acceptance of absentee ballots without a witness signature “for voters who believe they may not safely have a witness present while completing their ballot.”

“We saw how Virginians and their votes were protected when the state agreed to waive the witness requirement for the primary election, so we are relieved that the same protection will be in place for November. Amidst all the uncertainty that this pandemic brings, it is incumbent upon our election administrators to provide voters with safe access to the ballot and assurance that their voices will be heard.” said Deb Wake, president of the League of Women Voters of Virginia.

Over a quarter of Virginians age 18 and over live by themselves, and almost a third of Virginians over 65 years of age — one of the groups most vulnerable to COVID-19 — live alone. And the impact of this requirement will also fall heavily on Virginians with disabilities and African-Americans, who live alone in larger percentages than the population as a whole and who also are experiencing COVID-19 at disproportionate rates.

“Voting is essential to our democracy and should be safe and easy to do, even in a pandemic. Getting rid of the witness requirement is a simple way to keep absentee voters safe without sacrificing the safety of our election. No one should have to risk their health to vote,” said Eden Heilman, legal director for the ACLU of Virginia.

“The court’s action preserves the right to vote throughout 2020 for Virginians who cannot risk their health to get a witness signature in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Davin Rosborough, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project. “This settlement protects Virginians who wish to vote in this critical election year.”

Story by Chris Graham

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