Virginia Debates Use of E-Signatures for Absentee Ballot Requests

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Fresh off this summer’s debate over removing eligibility checkboxes from voter registration forms, The Virginia State Board of Elections is once again at the center of a firestorm over a new program that allows voters to request absentee ballots with an electronic signature. The Washington Post has more:

Some Republican elections officials expressed concern Tuesday over a practice both major parties are using to streamline the process of signing up absentee voters, saying it encourages voter fraud.

Earlier this year, members of the state Board of Elections said that voters may sign absentee-ballot request forms electronically instead of printing out the forms, signing them with an ink pen and e-mailing back a scan or mailing the forms through the post office. The change lets voters skip the step of printing out the forms.

That guidance was offered during a contentious primary this summer, when House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) set up a secure Web site to make it easier for voters to request absentee ballots electronically.

But the practice has raised a red flag now that Del. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax) is using a similar site to sign up voters as he goes door to door seeking support for his state Senate bid in a district that includes Fairfax, Prince William and Stafford counties.

As always, the essence of the debate is the perceived tradeoff between improving voter access and lowering the barriers to fraud:

Surovell said he has helped hundreds of voters apply for absentee ballots because they are pregnant, caring for sick loved ones or face some other circumstance that could keep them from getting to the polls.

That has some GOP election officials worried. At a state Board of Elections meeting on Tuesday, Clara Belle Wheeler, a Republican member of the board, said a person could easily use an online portal to pose as a voter seeking an absentee ballot. “That scares me,” she said. “I think we need to define a signature in a more constructive way. A typed name is not a signature. And we have the authority to clean this up.”

But Surovell told the elections board the process opens up more opportunities for people to vote. “These are just some of the 853 people who are going to be able to vote thanks to the speaker and thanks to your action,” Surovell told the elections board. Concerns about fraud amount to “paranoia and people chasing ghosts who do not exist,” he said …

Kevin Reynolds, an aide to state Sen. Thomas A. Garrett Jr. (R-Buckingham), said electronic signatures “could facilitate and encourage nefarious types” to break the law.

Steve Hunt, chairman of the Fairfax County Electoral Board and a Republican former Fairfax County School Board member, said he also worries about potential voter fraud.

“If you’re filling out the form for the voter, it’s a very short step to start filling out the form without a voter,” Hunt said, adding that he was speaking for himself only.

The fact that the change originally came at the request of Speaker Howell is adding more than a little intrigue to the debate:

The issue of absentee ballots and electronic signatures surfaced this year when Howell’s primary campaign asked the Board of Elections to clarify a law regarding requests for absentee ballots.

In May, the board resolved unanimously that voters may submit absentee-ballot requests electronically. That gave Howell and other campaigns and political committees the go-ahead to set up Web portals to make it easier for voters to request absentee ballots.

At the time, Howell’s opponent, Susan Stimpson, accused him of gaining an unfair advantage by receiving guidance on the absentee-ballot rules — she called it a change in the rules — without her knowledge. Events played out in a public Board of Elections meeting …

Asked whether online portals could encourage voter fraud, Howell spokesman Matt Moran said only that the Howell campaign has followed the law. Only 17 voters used Howell’s online portal to request absentee ballots in the primary, Stafford County Registrar Greg Riddlemoser said.

A lawyer for state Democrats called criticism at Tuesday’s meeting a partisan move intended to restrict ballot access and disenfranchise voters.

“These Republicans want one set of rules when Speaker Howell tries to mobilize his supporters and now are demanding an entirely different set of voting rules apply when Democrats do the same,” Georgina Cannan said.

In reality, however, both sides have moved to take advantage of the change:

Ahead of the general election, the Republican Party of Virginia created a site similar to Howell’s.

Aneesh Chopra, President Obama’s pick to be the nation’s first chief technology officer, said he used campaign cash he raised in his unsuccessful 2013 bid for lieutenant governor to develop a site for Surovell and other Democrats to use.

For now, all the state board is saying is that it will revisit the policy after the election – but by then it will be 2016 and the stakes will be even higher. You can bet that campaigns in other states will be watching this closely … and you can bet the house that the two major parties will find lots of different ways to fight about it. Grab some Virginia peanuts and stay tuned.

1 Comment on "Virginia Debates Use of E-Signatures for Absentee Ballot Requests"

  1. I understand both sides of the debate for eSignature as it relates to voting. The truth of the matter is if government took into account persons biometrics or simple security such as mobile phone confirmation the fake votes could be avoided. Best eSignature software verifies a person’s identity prior to signing.

    Regards,

    Anthony founder of Saydoc.com – eSignatures & Document tracking

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