Virginia officials say all voters can cast ballots by mail for May municipal elections

By: - March 17, 2020 3:22 pm

Election official with voting stickers at Robious Elementary School in Midlothian, Va., November 5, 2019. (Parker Michels-Boyce/Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia Department of Elections says voters will be allowed and encouraged to cast ballots by mail in May’s municipal elections in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

State law requires voters to have a excuse in order to cast an absentee ballot, but officials have determined that the coronavirus outbreak qualifies as a valid reason for everyone. The elections department says voters are “strongly encouraged” to request an absentee ballot under the disability or illness exemption.

“Localities that have May elections should encourage voters to apply online for an absentee ballot,” Elections Commissioner Chris Piper said in a guidance email sent to local registrars Monday. “They may use reason code 2A due to COVID-19.”

The 2A reason code covers disability or illness and does not require any supporting documentation.

The guidance did not offer specific recommendations on how to handle in-person voting, but the memo suggested curbside voting as an option for localities whose election offices are closed to the public.

“Just like everybody else in government, we’re all kind of navigating something that is completely unprecedented,” Piper said in a brief phone interview Tuesday afternoon. “We’re being careful to understand what’s within our power and authority. But also understanding the uniqueness of the situation.”

Because Virginia has already conducted it’s presidential primary, the state doesn’t have to face the more difficult decision of whether to press on with primary voting or change course.

But around 550 municipal and school board seats, mostly in towns across the state, are up for election on May 5. The deadline to request an absentee ballot for those elections is April 28.

With many facets of public life shutting down as people across the nation are asked to practice social distancing, it’s not yet clear what future Virginia elections could look like.

“At this time there is no plan to move elections; this could change and we will inform you if it does happen,” Piper wrote in his email to local registrars.

Though Ohio called off its presidential primary at the last minute, other states that proceeded with primary voting Tuesday struggled with a variety of coronavirus-related complications, according to the Associated Press, including poll workers failing to show up.

In an earlier advisory sent to registrars late last week, the state asked local election officials to be prepared to continue essential functions like voter registration and processing of absentee ballots if their offices or polling places are subject to emergency closures.

“If your locality has a May election, you should try to send out your ballots as soon as possible(you should also encourage voters to request their absentee ballots as early as possible),” the Department of Elections wrote in the memo.

A bill just passed by the General Assembly will allow 45 days of excuse-free early voting for the November election, allowing anyone to vote by mail in the presidential election. Northam is expected to sign that bill, which will go into effect July 1.

The state is also scheduled to hold congressional primaries in June. No decisions have been made on how to handle those elections.

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.