In the nearly 10 years since Norfolk voter registrar Stephanie Iles began working in the local elections department, she’s never been in such a crunch to get everything ready for an election with so much still uncertain.
With the election just over two months away, Virginia’s voter registrars say they already were inundated with work as they prepare to carry out changes state lawmakers approved in their regular session earlier this year. Recently, they’ve had to deal with questions surrounding the U.S. Postal Service’s ability to deliver absentee ballots.
Now, as Democrats who lead the General Assembly approved a measure Friday they say will make it even easier to vote in November, registrars say they’re worried about how they’re going to pull off the election in time.
They need to start getting absentee ballots — being requested at record numbers because of the coronavirus pandemic — in the mail Sept. 18, the first day they’re allowed to go out. Now they’ll have to implement the new changes as they await direction from the Department of Elections, while being bombarded with questions from confused voters.
“Everything’s tight right now,” Iles said. “We’re working with a really, really short window.”
On Friday, lawmakers voted along party lines to require localities to set up ballot “drop-off locations” where voters can bring their absentee ballots to registrars’ offices and satellite voting sites as well as at polling precincts on Election Day.
Democrats, who have control of the General Assembly, say such drop boxes allow voters to bypass the U.S. Postal Service — which has been under scrutiny for mail delays — and cast ballots safely without having to vote in person while a highly contagious and dangerous disease continues to spread.
But the approved bill, which still needs to be signed by Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam and only applies to the Nov. 3 election, leaves the specifics of those drop-off locations — whether they need to be surveilled, what kind of box is needed, how they’ll be secured — to the Department of Elections.
Lawmakers also voted to earmark up to $2 million to reimburse registrars for prepaid stamps on the ballots, and to remove the requirement that a witness sign the ballot, after a federal court ruled the witness signature requirement couldn’t be enforced for the November election because the coronavirus makes it dangerous for at-risk people to be around others.
“We are trying to make things easier for people and make sure their vote counts,” said Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax, on Thursday during a virtual session of the House of Delegates.
But that might make it harder on registrars: They can’t print the instructions that go along with the ballots they’ll start sending Sept. 18 until the bill is signed and they know where they’re required to put drop boxes.
And they can’t order those boxes until the Department of Elections tells them what they need to look like. York County registrar Walt Latham said he called a company who makes such boxes last week and was told the company was backlogged until the end of September.
“I understand the interest in this, but we’re three weeks from voting. We’ve got a lot to get done, and it was already challenging with the pandemic and changes with early voting and voting by mail,” Latham said.
The changes he’s referring to were passed by the General Assembly in March and allow no-excuse absentee voting in person and by mail during the 45 days before the election. Lawmakers also voted to allow people to vote without showing a photo ID, though you still have to prove your identity in some way, such as showing your voter card or a bill with your address.
“It’s a concern, and you want consistency amongst the 133 localities,” Iles said. “We want to have consistency, and we want to make sure we are protecting the integrity of the electoral process and the voting,” she added.
She said election officials and poll workers have to be trained on the changes, which adds to the workload. She said she’s been working 13- to 14-hour days, seven days a week, and expects work for herself and her staff to only increase before the election.
“Basically we will do whatever we need to do to get it done,” she said.
Republicans strongly opposed the drop-off locations, saying they weren’t secure and could lead to “vote harvesting,” a term some in the GOP use for ballots being collected and returned by someone other than the voter, usually a third-party organization.
Sen. Steve Newman, R-Bedford, said the bill doesn’t prevent an advocacy group from going door to door collecting ballots, although tampering with a ballot is a felony.
“This seems to be the biggest invitation for fraud to the upcoming election that we’ve ever seen,” Newman said during a Senate committee meeting. “We’re using the coronavirus, a terrible thing, to kind of cover up the fact that we’re making these adjustments.”
“A whole lot of people are scared to death about the coronavirus,” Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, countered. “A dropoff box is nothing new.”
Several states, including Colorado and Washington, have used drop boxes for elections for years with no proof they lead to fraud. As more states consider adding them for the November elections, President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign is suing to prevent Pennsylvania, a battleground state, from using the boxes.
Despite Trump’s claims that widespread voter fraud could occur through mail-in voting, the Federal Bureau of Investigation told reporters Wednesday it has no evidence of any coordinated national voter fraud efforts during a major election. A commission convened by the president to investigate the 2016 presidential election also found no evidence to support claims of widespread voter fraud.
The Heritage Foundation, a right-leaning think tank, found 1,296 “proven instances” of voter fraud over four decades and says its database is not comprehensive, as it doesn’t capture all cases, including those that weren’t investigated or prosecuted.
Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, and Del. Rob Bloxom, R-Accomack County, raised a concern about the unfunded mandate for registrars tasked with purchasing the boxes.
Patricia White, the Accomack County voter registrar, told The Virginian-Pilot she purchased a $3,000 drop box and a $4,500 security camera system to observe the box in anticipation of the influx of absentee ballots expected and the General Assembly’s proposed changes. She said she hopes she can use some of the CARES Act funding to cover those costs.
Registrars say several factors have led to concerned voters requesting a ballot multiple times and calling their offices.
First, the Postal Service recently warned 46 states, including Virginia, that it couldn’t guarantee all mailed ballots would arrive in time to be counted, meaning voters would be disenfranchised. Virginia was told its Oct. 23 deadline to request an absentee ballot would put ballots “at risk” of not being received by the voter in time.
Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, who was named to the position in June, restructured the USPS and cut costs, and since then, reports have surfaced of the postal service removing mailboxes, deactivating mail sorting machines and cutting overtime hours, leading to delays in people receiving their mail.
Second, a third-party organization not affiliated with the state Department of Elections sent an absentee ballot application to millions of Virginia voters at the beginning of August, causing confusion among voters who had already requested a ballot.
Lastly, absentee ballots won’t be mailed until Sept. 18, but with elections and the USPS in the news, people have gotten anxious when they’re requested a ballot and it hasn’t arrived.
“Everyone is looking for their ballot now, so they keep applying,” said Mary Lynn Pinkerman, the Chesapeake voter registrar. “But really it’s just the same applicant over and over and over and it’s really zapping our manpower.”
Registrars are now pleading with voters to cast their ballots as early as possible, either in person, by mail or by dropping them off in one of the soon-to-be-authorized drop-off locations.
“The more people turn them in before Election Day, the more they’ll be counted on election night,” Latham said.
When Latham spoke to The Pilot this week, he said his office had received 4,700 to 4,800 applications for mailed absentee ballots. Compare that with 2016, when the county had 3,644 absentee ballots cast by mail or in person.
In Chesapeake, Pinkerman said her department sent about 20,000 ballots in 2016, and less than 10 weeks out from elections this year, she’s gotten about 14,000 applications.
In Norfolk, Iles estimates she’ll mail out close to 25,000 ballots in the first batch, compared with 2016′s first batch of 1,464 ballots.
The state now allows mail-in ballots that are postmarked by Election Day to be counted if they’re received by noon on the Friday after the election, and Iles thinks the absentee ballots placed in drop boxes on Election Day might be included in that batch, meaning the results could be delayed until days after the election.
Voters have until Oct. 13 to register and until Oct. 23 to ask for an absentee ballot by mail, online or by fax. But officials across the state have a clear message: Don’t wait.
Marie Albiges, 757-247-4962, firstname.lastname@example.org