“I Voted” stickers spread out on a table at a polling place in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
After Gov. Ralph Northam called for municipal elections next month to be postponed, Virginia registrars are still showing up to work to help people cast ballots.
They might end up getting trashed. Or they might end up counting.
Until the General Assembly gives the official word later this month, no one knows for sure.
“I think it’s put us in a little bit of a sticky situation,” said Accomack County Registrar Patricia White, who’s overseeing May elections in 10 towns on the Eastern Shore and its islands.
For weeks, officials in localities that hold municipal elections in May have been encouraging residents to vote by mail during the 45-day absentee period that began March 20. Voters seemed to listen to that advice, with registrars across the state seeing significant increases in absentee voting. The election will decide who’s elected to run dozens of towns and cities all over the state.
As of Wednesday evening, at least 4,132 had already been filled out and returned for the May 5 elections, according to the Virginia Department of Elections. The vast majority cited the “disability or illness” excuse that the state says is a valid reason for anyone to vote remotely during the COVID-19 crisis. That number is expected to grow as registrars continue sending out new ballots and accepting the ones they receive.
On Wednesday, Northam called for postponing those elections to November, a move that would require throwing out those thousands of ballots sent in early. State officials determined that storing the absentee ballots away to be counted in six months was unworkable and rescheduling in November would effectively mean restarting new elections.
Moving the elections would also mean allowing new candidates to enter races that had already been closed, according to a memo sent to registrars Thursday evening by the state.
The proposal has drawn pushback from some local candidates who are in the final month of their planned campaigns.
Joe Pasanello, one of 10 candidates for six council seats in the town of Haymarket in Prince William County, said he recently sent 400 mailers encouraging voters to cast absentee ballots only to learn those ballots might be discarded.
“That really irked the crap out of me. I’ll be frank with you about that,” Pasanello said.
As someone who has wrestled with health issues, Pasanello said he fully understands the safety concerns but thinks there must be a better solution than stopping low-turnout elections that already started.
“I think it’s pretty shortsighted when you compare it to the fact that people are going to Walmart every day and Target and other things ,” Pasanello said. “And we can’t control the ability of a small town to vote safely?”
Because Northam can’t move the May elections to November on his own, he has asked the General Assembly to do it.
There’s widespread agreement that the coronavirus pandemic means elections can’t be held as they normally would. But the idea of tossing out legitimately cast votes is shaping up as a sticking point policymakers will have to work through at the General Assembly’s April 22 reconvene session.
But the registrars running those elections have to keep operating as if the elections are still on.
In interviews, several registrars said they’re still accepting ballots and feel uncomfortable even explaining to people that the votes they’re casting may become moot. Doing that, they said, could discourage participation in an election that hasn’t officially been called off.
“I want to keep people on the route of voting and voting by mail and encourage that,” White said. “Because that is the safest thing to do right now.”
Registrars — who are concerned about spreading the virus in polling places and health risks to the older people who often volunteer to serve as poll workers — have voiced frustration that election decisions from the state have come slowly. On March 23, statewide organizations representing local election officials asked the state to cancel all in-person voting and conduct the May elections entirely through mail-in ballots.
“I think that if state officials hadn’t dithered for so long and vacillated on this issue until the election started that would have been the best option for May,” said Fauquier County Registrar Alex Ables.
Ables has May elections in the towns of Warrenton, Remington and The Plains.
“We’ve had people come in and vote today. We’re sending absentee ballots like we normally do every day,” Ables said. “It’s business as usual. Because, frankly, I don’t think anybody can tell you exactly what the General Assembly is going to do.”
Several legislators have called for a special session to take up emergency measures related to the coronavirus. But Northam and Democratic leaders have declined to rush lawmakers back to Richmond, suggesting any action that needs to be taken could wait until April 22.
In its memo to registars, the Virginia Department of Elections said that tight timeframe – with just two weeks between the General Assembly meeting and the election date – precluded any possibility of emergency legislation to conduct the May elections entirely by mail.
“Practically, there just isn’t enough time to make sure everyone has received a ballot and has the opportunity to mail it back,” the memo said.
Several Republican lawmakers have already voiced discomfort over the prospect of ending the May elections with voting already underway. So have some Democrats.
In a Facebook post, Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, praised the Northam administration’s handling of the crisis but said he had “major issues” with moving the municipal elections to November.
“There are many alternative ways to hold elections in May, while keeping people safe, whether it’s requiring voting by mail or limiting the # of voters at a voting place. (We have no issue with customers going into state-owned liquor stores, just saying),” Petersen said.
The Northam administration has emphasized the positives of pushing the municipal elections to November, such as the higher turnout that will come by having people pick local leaders while they’re voting in a presidential race.
Members of Northam’s administration have said state law prevents them from holding the May general elections with the June congressional primaries, which the governor has rescheduled for June 23. And because the Republican U.S. Senate primary is the only statewide contest in June and some congressional districts have only one party primary, differing levels of partisan interest could potentially impact the officially nonpartisan local races.
The municipal elections could potentially be held between June and November, but that would come with costs that wouldn’t be necessary in November when polling places will already be open.
“We think it’s the best of a difficult situation,” said Northam Chief of Staff Clark Mercer.
Though registrars wish the decision had come down sooner, they said they’re prepared to adapt to what the General Assembly decides on April 22.
“If it happens that the May moves to November when the General Assembly reconvenes, we’re OK with that if that prevents the polling places from opening again and somebody getting sick or dying,” said Norfolk Registrar Stephanie Iles, who has mayoral, city council and school board elections in May.
But for now, Northam’s recommendation is just that: a recommendation.
“What he said… doesn’t change anything as far as what we’re doing right now,” Iles said.
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