Local election officials ask Virginia to cancel in-person voting for May and June

By: - March 23, 2020 9:43 am

Dylan Triplett (left) dances while her mother, Deborah, fills out a ballot at Robious Elementary School in Midlothian, Va., November 5, 2019. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ for the Virginia Mercury)

Local officials have asked the Virginia Department of Elections to cancel all in-person voting for May and June elections to protect poll workers and the general public amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The leadership of the Voter Registrars Association of Virginia and the Virginia Electoral Board Association made the request in a letter sent to Elections Commissioner Chris Piper last week seeking more guidance on how to run elections during a public health crisis.

“National and state public health officials are pleading with citizens to avoid gatherings of people and to stay home away from other people. Accordingly, it is common sense that voters should avoid going to a polling place and risk exposure to, and transmission of, the COVID-19 virus during this national and state public health emergency,” wrote Wise County Registrar Allison J. Robbins, the president of the registrars’ association, and Barbara Tabb, a member of the Prince George County Electoral Board and president of the electoral board association.

The two officials asked how the state could ensure enough poll workers show up to conduct in-person voting, “especially because many are older and are in one or more at-risk categories.” The letter also raised questions about how election administrators could maintain appropriate distance between people inside a polling place, how to sanitize voting equipment and what kind of protective gear might be available to election officials.

“If we contract it, then who runs the election?,” Robbins said in a phone interview Monday morning.

The state has already said that anyone who wants to cast an absentee ballot by mail in May’s municipal elections can use the coronavirus crisis as a valid reason to do so, but there has been less guidance on how to handle in-person voting for the May 5 elections. Absentee voting is already underway in some localities, and the state has recommended curbside voting for localities that have shut down government offices.

“It’s not uniform,” Robbins said. “Some offices are still open and they’re still allowing people to come in.”

The local election officials suggested all voting be done by mail in May’s municipal elections and June’s congressional primaries. For the June 9 races, they said, voters would have to indicate which party’s primary they want to participate in.

“Moving the elections to a different date is not preferable because the public objective is to keep people from being in close proximity to one another thus preventing exposure and further spreading of the virus,” the officials wrote. “It is understood that there are legal issues to address with the provided suggestions above but urgency and action must result from the national and state emergency declarations in place. Current conditions are not ordinary and call for bold action with purpose to address them.”

Though the May and June elections will have relatively low turnout, some General Assembly members are already discussing how the state should handle voting in the November presidential election.

Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, has called for a vote-by-mail system for November that would allow all registered voters to receive an absentee ballot whether they requested one or not.

“Enacting an entire vote-by-mail election will take real logistical effort on the part of our government to execute well,” Carroll Foy said in a letter to Gov. Ralph Northam last week. “That is why it is essential that we determine the program’s feasibility as soon as possible to give ourselves the best chance to ensure every voting age citizen of the commonwealth a safe means of exercising their right to vote.”


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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.