Virginia lawmakers don’t delay May elections despite COVID-19 concerns

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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Despite coronavirus concerns, local elections for more than 200 public offices across Virginia will not be delayed.

The May 5 election comes more than a month before the governor’s stay-at-home order is expected to expire on June 10. Some are concerned elderly Virginians in particular will have to put themselves at risk to make their voices heard.

In one of the most contentious votes of Wednesday’s veto session, the state Senate shot down Gov. Ralph Northam’s pitch to move the May elections for more than 50 localities to November. The House of Delegates approved the plan after reconsidering their initial vote denying it.

“The governor had my support when he said if we do this we can save lives,” said Del. Marcia Price (D-Newport News). “We’re in the middle of an international pandemic where people are still dying every day.”

Democratic Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) took a stand against his party’s plan. “We cannot make decisions based on hysteria,” Petersen said. “The bottom line is we need our state Board of Elections to come up with guidance, to come up with all sorts of regulations to keep our election workers safe, to keep our voters safe. None of that is outlined in this amendment. This is just moving dates around.”

Petersen also raised logistical concerns about waiting until November, when localities typically reorganize their governments on July 1.

That’s why Petersen advocated for a special session, where lawmakers could consider legislation to move the election to June 16 instead. This way, Petersen said registrars wouldn’t have to discard what some are calling a record amount of absentee ballots.

“We’ve already seen thousands of absentee ballots returned to the registrar, we’ve never seen anything like before,” said Sen. John Cosgrove (R-Chesapeake). “In this particular amendment, those ballots will be deemed spoiled, they will be trash. That’s not how we should treat votes.” 

Gov. Northam has the authority to call a special session or push an election back for two weeks. His office says he’s still reviewing the General Assembly’s actions and he will announce next steps soon.

Hanover County Director of Elections Teresa Smithson said the increase in absentee voting can be attributed to the state loosening regulations that normally require people cite an excuse. Now, all Virginians can use coronavirus as a reason by checking off the “illness or disability” option.

Smithson said delaying local elections to June would be ideal to give people more time to vote absentee and local election officials more time to prepare.

Even though they plan to space out polling stations, limit voters to ten at a time and have personal protective equipment on hand, Smithson is concerned about the safety of seniors. She said they’re more likely than other age groups to vote in local elections with traditionally low turnout.

“Keep in mind, our seniors across the Commonwealth are the ones that work as poll officials and so that’s why there’s a lot of concern for their health and safety,” Smithson said.

In Hanover County, she said about 95 percent of her poll workers are elderly and some have already decided to sit out for the primary election scheduled for June.

“You’re going to see those long lines. We just ask that you be patient,” Smithson said.

As absentee ballots are encouraged as an alternative, the ACLU of Virginia wants to get rid of a regulation that says votes cast without a witness present can be discarded. Claire Gastañaga, the organization’s executive director, said this could disenfranchise populations like seniors and the disabled who are more likely to live alone.

“Every single one of those people under the governor’s order is required to stay home and we want them to be able to do that and stay safe and still be able to vote without inviting someone to come into contact with them,” Gastañaga said.

Gastañaga said the Virginia Board of Elections has the authority to expediently waive this regulation, intended to prevent voter fraud and coercion. The ACLU of Virginia has requested they do so but Gastañaga said they’ve yet to take action.

The current deadline for requesting an absentee ballot by mail is April 28.

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