RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)–The Virginia Department of Elections says wearing a mask while voting in-person is strongly encouraged but not required.
The policy clarification comes as Gov. Ralph Northam signs a new bill into law giving his administration more options to enforce the state’s mask mandate.
Officials say Virginia law already prohibited a qualified voter from being “hindered or delayed.” Hanover County Director of Elections Teri Smithson said that definition includes turning people away from the polls for refusing to wear a face covering. Smithson said their goal is to balance public health and voter access.
“People have the right to cast a ballot unimpeded so, whether they’re in a mask or not in a mask, I’m not going to disenfranchise them,” Smithson said.
Smithson said state guidelines instruct poll workers to offer a free mask to voters who show up without one. If a voter declines, she said they would then be encouraged to vote curbside.
Curbside voting, which allows people to cast their ballot without leaving their car, has traditionally been used in Virginia to accommodate the elderly and people with disabilities. This fall, Smithson said it’s open to everyone in Hanover and more than 1,000 people have already taken advantage of the option.
Robert and Denise Blake voted curbside for the first time on Wednesday. The couple said they aren’t opposed to masks but they felt it was a fast, secure and safe alternative.
“I would recommend it highly. I mean it’s easy,” Robert Blake said.
If a voter refuses a face coverings and curbside service, Smithson said they can still cast their ballot inside, despite Gov. Northam’s mask requirement.
On Wednesday, Northam signed off on a new law authorizing a civil fine of up to $500 for violations of coronavirus executive orders, including the mask mandate.
Previously, the penalty was limited to a Class 1 misdemeanor with a maximum jail sentence of 12 months. This made it difficult for the Northam administration to enforce COVID-19 restrictions on an individual basis without upsetting critics fearful of government overreach.
In an interview on Wednesday, Northam said he hopes the temporary change to state law will deter people from breaking the rules.
“We’re not out there trying to punish people. We really want to educate people and have them be part of the solution,” Northam added.
Northam also clarified that the state will not enforce civil fines for mask mandate violations at the polls
“The message though is that we’re wearing masks to protect other people and I would ask anybody who comes to the polls– if they are able to wear a mask–to please do that so that individuals who are working at the polls are not exposed to COVID-19,” Northam said.