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Julie Rothey

Gov. McAuliffe keeps a perfect veto record

By Julie Rothey, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Terry McAuliffe not only set a record for the number of bills vetoed by a Virginia governor. He also has a perfect record for the number of vetoes sustained.

Republicans in the General Assembly failed to override any of the 40 vetoes that the Democratic governor issued on bills passed during this year’s legislative session, including measures that sought to increase voting requirements and make it easier to carry concealed weapons.

During his four years in office, McAuliffe has vetoed a total of 111 bills – more than any of his predecessors. None of them have been overturned, Susan Swecker, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Virginia, noted.

“Whether he is fighting for the rights of women, immigrants, or the LGBT community, Governor McAuliffe has promised to keep Virginia open and welcoming for all its citizens. Thanks to the Democrats who fought to sustain his vetoes, he was able to keep that promise,” Swecker said in a statement.

“With the help of Democrats in the General Assembly, the Governor has formed a wall of reason to protect Virginians from harmful legislation that would hurt our economy and working families.”

Republicans see it differently. They say McAuliffe and Democratic legislators have shunned bipartisanship and blocked common-sense legislation that would prevent voter fraud and let Virginians defend themselves.

For example, McAuliffe vetoed SB 1299, which would have allowed Virginians who are under a protective order to carry a concealed handgun while they wait for their concealed weapon permit to be issued. McAuliffe said, “The bill perpetuates the dangerous fiction that the victims of domestic violence will be safer by arming themselves. It would inject firearms into a volatile domestic violence situation, making that situation less safe, not more.”

On Wednesday, the General Assembly reconvened to consider the governor’s vetoes and legislative recommendations.

The Senate voted 23-17 in favor of overriding McAuliffe’s veto of SB 1299, with Democratic Sens. Chap Petersen of Fairfax and Lynwood Lewis of Accomack County joining the 21 Republican senators in voting yes. However, it takes 27 votes – a two-thirds majority – to override a veto in the Senate.

The bill’s sponsor – Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Winchester – was disappointed. She said the bill would have “allowed law-abiding victims of domestic violence, stalking and sexual abuse to carry concealed weapons on an emergency basis so they are not left defenseless while waiting carry permit paperwork. Many other states have passed similar emergency provisions and victims’ lives have been protected. “

Legislators also sustained McAuliffe’s vetoes of bills that would have required more identification for in-person and absentee voting and increased scrutiny of registration lists. Republicans said such measures would make it harder for people to vote illegally. McAuliffe said that voter fraud has not been a problem, that the bills could prevent qualified people from voting and that the legislation would put a financial burden on local governments.

In addition to the vetoes, the governor sent 85 bills back to the assembly with recommendations. More than 80 percent of the recommendations were accepted.

However, the General Assembly rejected McAuliffe’s recommendations to expand Medicaid and to reinstate a law limiting handgun purchases to one per month in Virginia.

“I remain disappointed that Republicans chose to block our efforts to expand Medicaid and reinstate the one-handgun-per-month rule,” McAuliffe said after Wednesday’s session. “Both proposals are common-sense measures that would save lives in Virginia.”

Environmentalists disappointed by ‘watered down’ coal ash bill

By Julie Rothey, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Environmentalists and some legislators are disappointed in the General Assembly’s passage of a “watered down” bill to prevent Dominion Virginia Power’s coal ash ponds from polluting rivers and groundwater.

The House last week removed from SB 1398 a provision requiring Dominion to complete environmental assessments of its coal ash ponds before getting state permits to close them. On Tuesday, the Senate adopted the House version of the bill.

“There’s been some talk that this thing has been completely neutered,” said the legislation’s sponsor, Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax. “It’s been definitely watered down.”

Surovell said he was “not happy” with the House substitute, but he asked his colleagues to approve it anyway. “I think it’s about as good as we’re going to do at this point in the process. It’s going to go to the governor, and hopefully the governor might fix this up a little bit.”

SB 1398 would require Dominion to identify the risks of heavy metals polluting the groundwater and alternatives methods of disposal when they apply for a permit to decommission a “coal combustion residuals unit,” commonly called a coal ash pond.

Dominion has ponds containing millions of tons of coal ash at four sites around Virginia. The company hopes to close the ponds by treating and discharging the water and then burying the remaining coal ash with a protective seal.

When passed by the Senate two weeks ago, SB 1398 said Dominion had to complete the environmental assessment on a coal ash pond before getting a permit to close it. The director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality “shall issue no draft permit to provide for the closure of any CCR unit until he has reviewed and evaluated the complete assessments and all comments received relating to that CCR unit,” that version of the bill said.

However, the House dropped that language in the version of SB 1398 that it passed 96-1 on Friday. The Senate then adopted the House version 37-3 on Tuesday.

Under the bill’s final version, the Department of Environmental Quality would not have to consider the environmental studies when granting permits to close coal ash ponds. It says the DEQ director “shall not suspend, delay, or defer the issuance of any permit” pending the completion of the environmental assessment.

“In deciding whether to issue any such permit, the Director need not include or rely upon his review of any such assessment,” the bill states. The DEQ would not have to certify the information presented in the reports or have a public comment period before granting a permit.

Environmentalists were upset that the House had stripped the stronger language from the Senate’s original version of the bill.

“There were some really important pieces that were removed,” said Jamie Brunkow, Lower James riverkeeper for the James River Association. He said the group is especially disappointed that, under the bill’s final version, the DEQ wouldn’t have to wait for the environmental reports before granting a permit.

Dominion wants to close its coal ash ponds at Possum Point Power Station on Quantico Creek in Prince William County; Bremo Power Station on the James River in Fluvanna County; Chesterfield Power Station on the James River in Chesterfield County; and Chesapeake Energy Center on the Elizabeth River in Chesapeake.

Two years ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency called for the closure of dormant coal ash ponds. The EPA issued that order after untreated coal ash flooded rivers in North Carolina and Tennessee, causing environmental damage.

Under the legislation passed by the General Assembly, when seeking a “dewatering” permit, Dominion would have to conduct an assessment that:

  • Describes any water pollution from the coal ash pond and possible solutions
  • Examines the feasibility of recycling the coal ash
  • Evaluates the possibility of removing the coal ash to a lined landfill
  • Demonstrates the “long-term safety” of the closed coal ash pond

Dominion’s plan is to “cap in place” the pits, by covering them with plastic and soil. Company officials say the process will not pollute the water.

Environmentalists disappointed by House’s coal ash bill

By Julie Rothey, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A bill approved by the House on Friday would require Dominion Virginia Power to study whether its controversial coal ash ponds might pollute the water, but environmentalists say the legislation doesn’t do enough.

SB 1398 would requires energy companies to identify the risks of heavy metals polluting the groundwater and alternatives methods of disposal when they apply for a permit to decommission a “coal combustion residuals unit,” commonly called a coal ash pond.

These ponds, a mixture of the byproduct of coal combustion and water, are often near rivers. Dominion has four sites around Virginia containing millions of tons of coal ash. The company hopes to close the ponds by treating and discharging the water and then burying the remaining coal ash with a protective seal.

As passed by the Senate 29-11 on Feb. 7, SB 1398 said Dominion would have to complete the environmental assessment on a coal ash pond before getting a permit to close the facility. The director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality “shall issue no draft permit to provide for the closure of any CCR unit until he has reviewed and evaluated the complete assessments and all comments received relating to that CCR unit,” the bill said.

However, that language was dropped in the version of the bill that the House passed 96-1 on Friday. Under the House-approved version, the Department of Environmental Quality would not have to consider the environmental studies when granting permits to close coal ash ponds.

The DEQ director “shall not suspend, delay, or defer the issuance of any permit” pending the completion of the environmental assessment, the House version said. “In deciding whether to issue any such permit, the Director need not include or rely upon his review of any such assessment.”

Environmentalists were upset that the House Committee on Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources had removed the stronger language from the Senate version of the bill.

“There were some really important pieces that were removed,” said Jamie Brunkow, Lower James riverkeeper for the James River Association. He said the group is especially disappointed that, under the House version, the DEQ wouldn’t have to wait for the environmental reports before granting a permit.

“You might say that the only thing that remains are some of the ashes of the first bill,” Del. Mark Keane, D-Fairfax, said when introducing the bill on the floor.

Dominion wants to close its coal ash ponds at:

  • Possum Point Power Station on Quantico Creek in Prince William County
  • Bremo Power Station on the James River in Fluvanna County
  • Chesterfield Power Station on the James River in Chesterfield County
  • Chesapeake Energy Center on the Elizabeth River in Chesapeake

The James River Association said it found arsenic and other heavy metals in the groundwater near the 13 million tons of coal ash stored at Dominion’s Chesterfield location. But leaving the ash in ponds isn’t an option, either. Both North Carolina and Tennessee have had untreated coal ash flood rivers, causing environmental damage.

Nate Benforado, staff attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said that his organization supports the work the General Assembly is doing but that there’s still more to do.

“Most notably, whether it makes sense to continue the closure permitting process while DEQ is waiting to receive more detailed information that would help make sure we get these sites closed right the first time,” Benforado said.

The bill would apply only to coal ash pits in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, all of which are owned by Dominion.

Under the legislation, Dominion would have to include in applications for a “dewatering” permit:

  • A description of any water pollution from the coal ash pond and possible solutions
  • The feasibility of recycling the coal ash
  • The possibility of removing the coal ash to a lined landfill
  • A demonstration of the “long-term safety” of the closed coal ash pond

Coal ash rose to the forefront of environmental activism in Richmond a year ago when Dominion received a permit to release the treated wastewater from its coal ash ponds at the Bremo Power Station into the James River. The James River Association and the Southern Environmental Law Center successfully campaigned to have the requirements of the permit increased.

The process of dewatering Bremo coal ash ponds has started, but the coal ash remains. Dominion’s planis to “cap in place” the pits, by covering them with plastic and soil. Brunkow said there is still risk for contamination in this method. Dominion officials say the process will not pollute the water.

Other options are moving the coal ash to another, more modern lined landfill, or recycling the ash into cinder blocks and concrete.

The move to dewater coal ash ponds came after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued rules two years ago calling for the closure of dormant coal ash ponds after the spills in North Carolina and Tennessee.

The bill will now go back to the Senate, where senators will vote on the House version of SB 1398. If the Senate rejects the House version, a conference committee will be formed to work out the differences.

Over Democrats’ objections, Senate OKs ‘religious freedom’ bill

By Julie Rothey, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Democratic officials and the American Civil Liberties Union blasted Republican senators after they passed a “religious freedom” bill that would protect people who refuse to marry same-gender couples.

HB 2025, sponsored by Del. Nicholas Freitas, R-Culpeper, cleared the Senate on Thursday on a party-line vote of 21-19. The bill protects organizations and their employees who refuse to participate in the “solemnization” of marriage based on a “sincerely held religious belief.”

Freitas said the legislation was a response to Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s executive order that prohibits state contractors from discriminating based on sexual orientation.

“This is simply about preventing the government from punishing a religious organization because it doesn’t fit with a current governor or anyone else’s interpretation of social standards,” Freitas said when introducing the bill in committee.

The bill would protect a religious organization from losing a state contract or its tax-exempt status because of the group’s beliefs regarding marriage. It also would protect individuals from losing state employment, grants or acceptance into a public university if they refuse to participate in the marriage of a same-sex couple.

Democrats, who unanimously voted against the measure, contended it would sanction discrimination against gay and lesbian couples. On Tuesday, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam celebrated the third anniversary of a federal court ruling in the Bostic v. Rainey case legalizing same-sex marriage.

On Thursday, Northam, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, criticized the Senate for approving HB 2025.

“We cannot go backwards. We need to continue to be open and welcoming to all, no matter who you are or who you love,” Northam said in a press release.

Claire Gastanaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, urged her group’s supporters to oppose HB 2025 and SB 1324, an identical bill that passed the Senate last week and is now before the House Committee on General Laws.

“If these bills are signed into law, same-sex couples could be denied services at church-run facilities, hotels or resorts affiliated with religious organizations, or at hospitals owned by religious groups, even if the services are funded by taxpayers,” Gastanaga said.

Del. Marcus Simon, D-Falls Church, argued on the House floor that HB 2025 is unnecessary because the Religious Freedom Restoration Act already makes it illegal for public bodies to discriminate against faith-based organizations on the basis of their religious beliefs.

A similar bill was introduced last year and failed in part because of the argument articulated by Simon.

However, Republicans said they fear that McAuliffe’s executive order could lead to discrimination against faith-based organizations that object to same-sex marriage.

“We had the governor’s executive order, which I believe does just that, or at least creates a mechanism where that can be accomplished,” Freitas said.

Democrats expressed concerns over the bill’s potential economic consequences. North Carolina experienced economic losses after its government passed a similar law last year.

At the beginning of the legislative session, McAuliffe vowed to veto any bill he considered discriminatory. Northam said the governor would veto HB 2025.

At his news conference Tuesday, Northam vowed to protect gay and lesbian Virginians from discrimination.

“Just before the holidays, I completed a seven-city tour that ended in Salem, Virginia, where I was pleased to welcome the NCAA soccer tournament,” Northam said.“That championship was relocated from North Carolina after the state passed anti-LGBT legislation, as was the NBA All-Star game and major businesses. As long as I’m here, as long as Gov. McAuliffe and Attorney General (Mark) Herring are here, Virginia will be inclusive. We will not be like North Carolina.”

Carol Schall, one of the plaintiffs in the Bostic v. Rainey case, also spoke at the news conference. She discussed HB 1395, which would have repealed language in state law that bans same-sex marriage. Even though the language is no longer valid, the bill, sponsored by Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax County, died in a House committee.

“Names matter. Names like ‘mom’ and ‘wife’ make all the difference in the world,” Schall said. “In past years such as this year, Del. Sickles proposed to repeal outdated constitutional amendment encoding discrimination in our great Constitution.”

Sickles called for a full House vote on the issue. He also discussed HJ 538, his proposal to repeal a constitutional amendment adopted by voters adopted in 2006 that defines marriage as being between “one man and one woman.” Sickles’ resolution died in a House committee on an unrecorded vote.

Constitutional amendments require approval in two legislative sessions before they can be presented to voters on a November ballot.

“If this constitutional were passed and it passed again next winter, by the time it got to the voters in November of ’18, 1.2 million people in our state will have come of age,” Sickles said. “They want to speak to this. They do not want the people of the 2006 cultural and societal milieu to speak forever.”

CNS reporter Tyler Hammel contributed to this report.

One vote defeats bill to fine trespassing dogs’ owners

By Julie Rothey, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A bill to impose fines on hunters whose dogs entered private property was killed on the House floor by a one-vote margin Monday.

HB 1900, introduced by House Speaker William Howell, R-Fredericksburg, would have fined hunters up to $100 for a first offense and up to $250 for a second offense if their dogs trespassed on private property.

For the fines to apply, landowners would have to either post signs to keep dogs out or inform the hunter in writing to keep dogs off their property.

“I feel this bill would unproportionally punish people for the actions of a few,” said Del. Thomas C Wright Jr., R-Lunenburg, during a floor debate. He said the bill would hurt local economies and impede the culture of Virginia.

Del. James P Massie, R-Henrico, said the bill would protect private property.

“Presently, landowners all over Virginia have no recourse to protect themselves when the dogs’ running unduly burdens the owner’s use of the property,” Massie said.

The bill failed on a 48-47 vote on its third reading on the House floor. Approval would have sent it to the state Senate, where a dog-related hunting bill died in committee last week.

During the debate, the bill’s opponents raised concerns over the effect of the law on pets and the potential for civil unrest.

The bill was amended on the floor so it would not apply to localities west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where deer hunting with dogs is already illegal. However, hunters can hunt other game with hounds.

“If this is a property rights bill, then why does it not apply to the west of the Blue Ridge?” Wright asked. “It’s more and more being described as a bill against hunters who happen to hunt deer with hounds.”

Rob Nicholson, a Virginia Beach landowner who supported the bill, said he couldn’t bring his dogs to his farm during rifle-hunting season and was worried about his 18-month-old daughter because “every single day, the dogs ran through my farm.” Nicholson hunts on his property without using dogs.

“Why in the world would someone say we’re trying to take away your ability to hunt when we’re just saying, ‘Please keep your dogs off our property’?” Nicholson asked.

Kirby Burch, CEO of the Virginia Hunting Dog Alliance, defended the current law’s provision allowing hunters the right to retrieve a dog that has crossed a property line.

If a hunting dog strays onto another person’s property, the hunter has the “right to retrieve” the animal, even if the hunter has been previously asked not to trespass.

“The right to retrieve law is an unconstitutional law,” said Donald Wright, a landowner and hunter in the Virgilina community in Halifax County. Wright, who supported the bill, said it would have restored his property rights.

Under the current law, which will remain in effect, it’s a misdemeanor to intentionally release dogs on another person’s land to hunt without the consent of the landowner. However, if a dog is found on another’s property, there usually is not enough evidence to prove the intentional release of that dog.

Dog hunters and landowners argue over trespassing bill

By Julie Rothey, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Hunters may have to pay a fine if their dog enters private property under a bill in front of the House of Delegates.

A revised version of HB 1900, introduced by House Speaker William Howell, R-Stafford County, passed the House Rules Committee on Tuesday.

The bill springs from tension between landowners and hunters who use dogs to chase deer.

Hunters could be fined up to $100 for a first offense and up to $250 for a second offense if their dogs trespass on private property.

For the fines to apply, landowners would have to either post signs to keep dogs out or inform the hunter in writing to keep dogs off his or her land. The law would be enforced by animal control officers, conservation police, and other law-enforcement officers.

“This is an agenda to outlaw hunting with dogs,” said Kirby Burch, CEO of the Virginia Hunting Dog Alliance. Its members held a rally at the Capitol last month to protest the bill.

Burch told the Rules Committee that according to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, dogs were involved in only about 5 percent of hunting complaints in Virginia from July 2014 to June 2015.

“Where’s the beef?” Burch asked, if such a small percentage of complaints have to do with dogs.

Rob Nicholson, a landowner who supports the bill, said the beef is that he couldn’t bring his dogs to his farm during rifle-hunting season, and he was worried about his 18-month-old daughter because “every single day the dogs ran through my farm.” Nicholson hunts on his property, without using dogs.

“Why in the world would someone say we’re trying to take away your ability to hunt when we’re just saying, ‘Please keep your dogs off our property’?” Nicholson asked.

The bill also would allow a landowner to stop a trespassing dog long enough to confirm its identification. Dog owners argue that the dogs are just pursuing deer and don’t intentionally trespass and that landowners should not interfere with the hunt.

“To say that a dog in pursuit cannot be stopped is absolutely the most ludicrous thing,” Nicholson said.

Burch said the hunting dog alliance’s main concern is landowners potentially having the right to restrain dogs to identify them.

“Who’s going to do that identification?” Burch asked, arguing that sheriffs and game wardens don’t have the resources to answer calls to identify dogs. He said hunters are worried that landowners would be able to hold dogs until a law enforcement official was available.

Nicholson responded that he would only restrain a dog to take a picture for future identification.

Burch also defended the current law’s provision allowing hunters the right to retrieve a dog that has crossed a property line.

“This (bill) negates the right to retrieve,” Burch said.

If a hunting dog strays onto another person’s property, the hunter has the “right to retrieve” the animal, even if the hunter has been previously asked not to trespass.

“The right to retrieve law is an unconstitutional law,” said Donald Wright, a landowner and hunter in the Virgilina community in Halifax County. Wright, who supported the bill, said it “restores property rights to people like me.”

Under the current law, it’s a misdemeanor to intentionally release dogs on another person’s land to hunt without the consent of the landowner. However, if a dog is found on another’s property, there usually is not enough evidence to prove the intentional release of that dog.

While the House Rules Committee approved HB 1900 on an 11-4 vote, it awaits action on the House floor. If approved there, it would go to the Senate.

A Senate committee killed a hunting-with-dogs bill Wednesday.

Senate Bill 1545 would have held hunters liable for damages to the property their dog entered, if they let them onto private property intentionally.

The bill, introduced by Sen. David Marsden, D-Fairfax County, would have made it a Class 3 misdemeanor if a hunter or dog trainer knew, or should have known, about an imminent trespass while hunting or training.

The Senate Committee for Courts and Justice voted unanimously to table SB 1545.

Hunting Dog Group Rallies Against Trespassing Bill

By Tyler Woodall and Julie Rothey, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – About 150 hunters and members of the Virginia Hunting Dog Alliance turned out at the Virginia Capitol on Tuesday to show their displeasure with a bill that would fine the owners of dogs that trespass on other people’s property.

House Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford, is sponsoring HB 1900, which would impose a $100 fine if a dog runs at large on property where the owner has given notice verbally, in writing, by placing signs or by marking trees with blue paint on the property line.

The speakers who addressed the passionate crowd adorned in blaze-orange hunting caps included H. Kirby Burch, the CEO of the Virginia Hunting Dog Alliance; Jeff Sili, a member of the Caroline County Board of Supervisors; and recently elected state Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg.

“Your participation sends a message that you care, that you are watching, and you do pay attention,” Burch told the crowd as the rally began with a few hoots and hollers from the members.

Burch said the bill would penalize accidental trespassing by hunting dogs.

Peake guaranteed the crowd that he will vote against the bill if it makes it past the House and will stand up to anyone to protect hunting rights.

Sili also said the bill is flawed. “A point that is lost in all of this,” he said is that “law enforcement is not prepared to take on what this is going to cause, because it will become a tool amongst neighbors who don’t like their neighbor’s dog in their yard. It’s not just a hunting issue.”

Nearly all the speakers said the bill is wrongfully aimed at hunters.

“I have no redeeming graces for the bill,” Burch said in an interview after the rally. “It is a bill to do harm because someone has an agenda.”

Users of hunting dogs “want people to understand we’re God-fearing, law-abiding citizens,” Burch said. “We’re not rednecks, we’re not troublemakers and we care about our animals.”

Theresa Miller, who with her husband owns Red Oak Foxhounds hunt club in Rawlings, echoed Burch’s message.

“You cannot fault the whole deer hunting community because of the actions of a few people,” Miller said.

HB 1900 is awaiting action by the House Rules Committee, which Howell chairs.

Under current law, it’s a misdemeanor to intentionally release dogs on another person’s land to hunt without the consent of the landowner. However, finding a dog on another’s property is not enough evidence to prove the intentional release of that animal.

If a hunting dog strays onto another person’s property, the hunter has the “right to retrieve” the animal. This applies even if the hunter has been previously asked not to trespass. Landowners have been pushing for a repeal to the “right to retrieve” law.

“The ‘right to retrieve’ law is an unconstitutional law,” said Donald Wright, a landowner in the town of Virgilina in Halifax County. He supports HB 1900, saying the bill “restores property rights to people like me.”

The Virginia Hunting Dog Alliance argued in a press release that conversations need to happen between neighbors before regulations are introduced. But Wright, a hunter himself, said he has tried that.

“I’ve been told, ‘You’re not from around here, you’re the problem, get used to it,’” he said. Wright stressed that he doesn’t want to see dog hunting done away with. “It’s just the bad apples.”

Landowners have complained about hunting dogs on their property, and hunters following them, in the past. The Virginia Landowners Association is pushing for stricter licensing regulations for dog hunters.

“I’m not able to enjoy my land. There’s dogs on my property almost every day,” Aaron Bumgarner, executive director of the landowners association, said in an interview with the Tidewater News. “I can’t take my own two dogs out on my land without conflict during the general [hunting] season and even during spring turkey season.”

From July 2014 to June 2015, about 5 percent of hunting complaints in Virginia involved dogs, according to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

Governor McAuliffe Pushes for Easier Voting

By Julie Rothey, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Currently, to vote absentee in Virginia, you must cite a specific excuse, such as attending college or having a disability.

But if Gov. Terry McAuliffe has his way, the state would expand the list of excuses to include people caring for children or for an ill or disabled individual and anyone without reliable transportation. Better yet, McAuliffe says, Virginians should be able to vote absentee without having to give an excuse.

McAuliffe is urging the General Assembly to approve those proposals during the legislative session that began Wednesday.

The Democratic governor, in the final year of his term, discussed the proposals at a news conference Tuesday. “These reforms will make it easier for Virginians to have a say in their democracy and boost their confidence that politicians are working for the public good, not their own,” he said.

Right now, to vote absentee in person, a voter must meet one of “13 arbitrary rules” that also apply to mail-in absentee voting, McAuliffe said. For example, caregivers must be related to the individual they care for to vote absentee under current law.

Besides expanding the list of excuses to vote absentee, McAuliffe urged lawmakers to approve “no-excuse, in-person absentee voting.” He called for “legislation that permits any registered voter of the commonwealth to vote absentee in-person beginning 21 days before an election until 5 p.m. on the Saturday before the election,” with the same check-in procedures as on Election Day.

McAuliffe also said he wants to repeal Virginia’s photo identification requirements for voters.

Those who passed this law “hung on the charade of voter fraud,” McAuliffe said. But he added, “Here in the commonwealth of Virginia, there is not a shred of voter fraud evidence.”

Republicans have strongly supported requiring voters to show a photo ID. Ed Gillespie, a candidate for the Republican nomination for governor in this year’s election, criticized McAuliffe’s proposal to eliminate the photo ID mandate.

McAuliffe’s recommendation “is out-of-step with the people of the commonwealth,” Gillespie said in a news release Tuesday.

The photo identification requirement “secures the integrity of our elections and guarantees fair and equitable ballot access for all voters, despite the alarmist and false rhetoric of some,” Gillespie said. He promised to protect the existing law if he were elected governor.

Several Democratic lawmakers have submitted legislation to carry out McAuliffe’s proposals to make voting easier:

●     Del. Richard “Rip” Sullivan of Arlington is sponsoring House Bill 1603, which would entitle “a person to vote absentee if the person is unable to go in person to the polls on the day of the election because he is primarily and personally responsible for the care of an ill or disabled individual who is confined at home.”

●     Del. Betsy Carr of Richmond is sponsoring HB 1935, to establish no-excuse, in-person absentee voting.

●     Sen. Janet Howell of Reston has filed Senate Bill 845, to expand absentee voting for caregivers, and SB 844, to provide for no-excuse, in-person absentee voting.

●     Del. Steve Heretick of Portsmouth has submitted a bill (HB 1904) to repeal the requirement that voters show a photo ID in order to cast a ballot.

Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, thanked the governor for pushing to end the voter identification requirement. But she asked for a greater reduction in absentee voting restrictions.

“If Virginia law limits no-excuse absentee voting to in-person only, qualified voters may be excluded from participating based upon a lack of readily accessible transportation, geography, income status, physical disabilities, and the constraints of modern-day individuals and families," she said in a letter to McAuliffe.

First lady Dorothy McAuliffe and Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam also spoke at the news conference. Northam, who is seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, stressed his desire for a bipartisan effort to make it easier to vote.

However, this cooperation seems unlikely as two Republican lawmakers are seeking to expand the photo identification requirement to Virginians who want to vote absentee by mail.

HB 1428 by Del. Buddy Fowler of Ashland and SB 872 by Sen. Amanda Chase of Midlothian would require “any voter submitting an application for an absentee ballot by mail or by electronic or telephonic transmission to a facsimile device to submit with his application a copy of one of the forms of identification acceptable under current law.”

“The bill also requires any voter to submit a copy of such identification with his voted absentee ballot. The bill exempts military and overseas voters and persons with a disability from these requirements,” according to the Legislative Information Service.

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