As Brenda Cabrera weighed the risks of holding in-person elections while a pandemic spread in Virginia, a man stood in her registrar’s office in Fairfax and said he’d probably still vote in person on Election Day.
As the director of elections and general registrar for the city, Cabrera tried giving him an application to vote absentee in the May elections — to vote right then and there, in person — but he refused, saying he enjoyed going to his polling place.
“The mindset will be hard to change,” Cabrera said.
But that mindset is what election officials are asking the state and the federal government to consider shifting, as the feasibility of holding in-person elections safely while practicing social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic is in doubt.
In a letter to Virginia Department of Elections Commissioner Chris Piper last week, local officials asked for guidance on how to proceed with the upcoming elections during the coronavirus pandemic.
“How do we protect election officials working in the polling place on Election Day, especially because many are older and are in one or more at-risk categories?” Voter Registrars Association of Virginia president Allison Robins and Virginia Electoral Board Association president Barbara Tabb asked.
“How often should equipment, pens, tables, privacy booths, etc., be sanitized?” “How do we ensure that election officials, voters, staff, and electoral board members are protected as we proceed with in-person voting?”
Calling it “common sense,” they recommended closing all polling places and mailing absentee ballots for both the May municipal elections and June congressional primaries. People who’d have trouble mailing in a ballot because of a disability or other reason could vote in person at the local election office.
Virginia has elections every year, and early voting has begun for the May 5 municipal elections. Chesapeake, Hampton, Norfolk, Newport News and Williamsburg all have city council, school board or mayor elections. The deadline to request an absentee ballot you can mail back is April 28, and the localities and the Department of Elections are encouraging people to vote this way.
The local government can also petition the Virginia Supreme Court to delay the election for longer than 14 days under a state of emergency.
“Moving the elections to a different date is not preferable because the public health objective is to keep people from being in close proximity to one another thus preventing exposure and further spreading of the virus,” Robins and Tabb said in their letter.
Voters will pick their party nominees for their U.S. House of Representatives district and U.S. Senate on June 9, and then there’s the presidential election in November.
Until July 1 when the law changes, you still need an excuse to vote absentee. The Department of Elections said last week anyone requesting an absentee ballot could use the disability/illness excuse. Some localities are also pushing curbside voting, in which an election official will bring a ballot out to your car on Election Day.
If you’re applying online for an absentee ballot by mail, the Department of Elections prompts you to choose one of the following options:
“I have a reason or condition that prevents me from going to the polls on Election Day” (recommended if you want to avoid going to the polls on Election Day due to COVID-19)
“I am unable to go in person to the polls on election day because of my disability or illness and am likely to remain disabled or ill for the rest of the calendar year” (requires medical approval and a mailed application).
It then asks you to choose “my disability or illness” as your excuse for requesting an absentee ballot.
In five states — Hawaii, Washington, Oregon, Colorado and Utah — voting by mail is the default. Ballots are automatically mailed to registered voters, but they can choose to cast a ballot at an in-person vote center during the early voting period or on Election Day.
But implementing that in Virginia would be a tall order.
For starters, there would be extra, unknown costs for the necessary paper, postage, staff and equipment needed to send ballots to Virginia’s 5.6 million (as of 2019, per the Department of Elections) registered voters and count however many are returned.
The Brennan Center for Justice, a New York-based nonpartisan law and policy institute, estimates it would cost up to $2 billion nationwide to run a smooth and safe election during the pandemic, in part by ensuring mailing a ballot is an option for all voters and increasing sanitation and social distancing measures at the polling places for those who must vote in person.
The $2 trillion federal stimulus package likely to be voted on by Congress this week includes $400 million for election assistance, but Elizabeth Howard, legal counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program and Virginia ‘s former deputy commissioner of elections, said that’s not enough.
She added: “The Virginia legislature really needs to consider the critical funding needs of our elections.”
The Democratic-led General Assembly drastically expanded access to voting during its annual session that ended earlier this month. Lawmakers allowed registered Virginia voters to cast a ballot without having to give an excuse in person or by mail up to 45 days before the election, made the November election a state holiday and removed the requirement that voters show a photo ID.
Lawmakers’ proposed budget, approved on March 12, is now in Gov. Ralph Northam’s hands, and he can make amendments to it that lawmakers still have to agree to. They are slated to return to Richmond April 22 to consider those amendments and vetoes to any bills.
Howard said any changes to the way Virginia votes — mandating voters automatically receive a ballot in the mail, for example — would need legislative approval.
But Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Woodbridge, said it’s unclear who would make the final decision over such a policy change. She asked Northam last week to have the Department of Elections study the feasibility of going to a 100% vote-by-mail election in November. The study would look at cost estimates and clarify whether the governor has any authority to change how we vote, or if the legislature would have to convene a special session to make the changes.
“If we are still dealing with the pandemic and the severity of it, we need to ensure people don’t have to make a choice between their life and their right to vote,” she said Wednesday.
For now, Fairfax’s Cabrera is anxiously awaiting any direction from the Department of Elections, the governor’s office or the legislature.
“We are planners,” she said. “That’s what we do. And we don’t like not knowing how to plan. That is part of the stress that is happening across the voting community — not knowing how to plan or wondering if we’re planning for the right thing.”