We have entered a truly unprecedented time in our country and our Commonwealth. Over the last month, the novel coronavirus has altered just about every aspect of American life. Since the first confirmed cases were reported in January, states across the country have been scrambling to figure out how to respond to a series of frequently changing circumstances and new realities. Many questions still remain, and among them: How will we vote during this pandemic and stay safe?
Voting is the cornerstone of our democracy. So how do we protect our most fundamental right in the face of this pandemic? We sent our recommendations to the governor this week. Here is what needs to happen now:
We need to maintain safe and clean polling precincts for those who cannot vote by mail.
Some states are talking about eliminating in-person voting options altogether and shutting down polling precincts where people may spread the disease. While we know that following the guidelines set by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) for an activity renowned for its crowds and lines will be difficult, it is absolutely necessary to keep polling places open. Switching to a mail-only election could severely impact turnout, especially in local elections and among our most vulnerable populations. Studies show that individuals with low income and communities of color often have less reliable mail delivery (something that might be further exacerbated during a pandemic) and are less likely to have permanent addresses. Election officials should prioritize in-person polling options in low-income neighborhoods and places with high in-person turnout.
We need to make voting by mail more accessible for everyone – and fast.
Virginia is already poised to transition to a no-excuse system of absentee voting as of July 1. But we need to move that effective date up and move it quickly. Right now if you did not want to vote in person, you would need to present a valid excuse to be able to vote by mail (we’ve got 17 of them that range from working outside of your precinct more than 11 hours on the day of the election to sitting in jail on a misdemeanor). Though Governor Northam has said that COVID-19 can be used as a valid excuse for the upcoming May elections, we need to make the voting-by-mail process easier and less confusing by moving up the effective date of no-excuse absentee voting.
We need the legislature to eliminate any barriers to voting by mail.
Up until a few months ago, Virginia was one of the most difficult states to cast your ballot – second only to Mississippi. The good news is that lawmakers got to work last legislative session and finally passed reforms that would start to make it easier to vote in Virginia. The bad news is that almost none of these reforms go into effect until July, and we have two elections (May 5th local elections and June 9th primaries) before that and a pandemic that is forcing most of us to stay at home. So we need the governor to recommend some changes, and we need the legislature to act quickly. Voters are still required to have a witness present in order to open and mark their absentee ballot under Virginia law. For people who live alone or are just practicing safe social distancing, this is not possible. If we are encouraging people to vote by mail, we need the General Assembly to eliminate the witness requirement immediately. We also need to move up the effective date of several key pieces of legislation that were passed this year so that changes can be implemented in time for the May local elections. These include bills that require registrars to provide paid postage for absentee ballots (HB 220), loosen restrictive voter ID requirements (SB 65 & HB 19), and make it easier for voters to have someone else return their ballot if they or someone in their family is sick.
We need to make returning mail-in ballots easy.
Under current law, absentee ballots may only be returned to the office of the general registrar during normal business hours or select days before an election. The governor and Department of Elections should strongly encourage local electoral boards to greatly expand the number of satellite absentee ballot locations around the state and offer expanded funding to do so. It should not be difficult to return your ballot.
We need to make sure all ballots are counted and voters can fix any mistakes.
With so many people casting an absentee ballot for the first time, we should expect mistakes. Those mistakes are likely to come from both voters and election officials. To prepare for this surge in absentee voting, we need to make sure that election workers are properly trained on how to count absentee ballots and are given enough time to do so. We also need to make sure that voters are given adequate opportunity and time to fix any issues with their ballot. Right now, Virginia has no uniform process for notifying a voter if there is an issue with their ballot and no uniform procedure that election officials have to follow to verify a ballot. We rely heavily on the witness requirement to prevent fraud, but that cannot be the method of choice during a time when people’s safety depends on staying home and away from each other.
We need everyone to stay informed about how to vote by mail.
We know this is a difficult time and everything is changing, but now more than ever you need to make sure that your voice is heard. We can take the necessary steps to make sure access to the ballot box is fair, safe and accessible. Our democracy depends on it.