Voters in suburban Henrico's Short Pump precinct cast their ballots in November 2018. The area saw a surge in Democratic voters after Trump's 2016 election. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

To hold safe elections later this year, local officials in Virginia say they’ll need about 41,000 bottles of hand sanitizer, almost 600,000 pairs of gloves, 172,000 face masks and 45,000 face shields.

In preparation for the opening of polling places throughout the state in June’s congressional primaries and the November general election, the Virginia Department of Elections recently asked registrars for estimates of how much personal protective equipment they might need. 

Though some registrars have already begun making their own purchases, the state plans to buy extra supplies using a portion of the roughly $9.6 million in federal coronavirus relief funds awarded to Virginia for election operations. The state will have to match the federal aid with roughly $2 million of its own.

The results of that survey underscore the magnitude of the challenge ahead for election officials as they craft plans to allow Virginians to cast ballots in person while preventing polling places from becoming vectors for coronavirus infections. In response to the survey — intended to help the state get a “ballpark estimate” it could use in discussions with suppliers —registrars gave estimates for how much equipment they’ll need for both June and November.

Dozens of towns and cities are holding municipal elections today, which will serve as a low-turnout trial run for the statewide contests later this year.

For municipal elections being held tomorrow, May 19th, the Department of Elections worked with several vendors to source enough masks, face shields, gloves, disinfectant and hand sanitizer for each election officer working on Election Day,” Elections Commissioner Chris Piper said in an email Monday. “In addition, we provided single use pens for ballot marking as well as single use folders so voters can securely transmit their ballots from the ballot marking station to the voting machine.” 

Piper said the elections agency is already working to send supplies to localities for the June 23 primaries and is working with his local counterparts to determine their needs for November.

Wise County Registrar Allison J. Robbins, the president of the Voter Registrars Association of Virginia, said she hadn’t heard of any localities holding elections this month that haven’t received enough protective and cleaning supplies.

“Our goal is to get the voters in, get them voted and get them back out as quickly as possible,” Robbins said. “Just to ensure limited exposure for everyone.”

Officials are encouraging mail-in absentee voting as the safest option during the pandemic, a shift that creates its own set of challenges by forcing election offices to process a higher volume of paperwork they weren’t designed to handle. But voting rights advocates say it’s important to preserve in-person voting so that people who prefer to stick to familiar routines — particularly minorities and the elderly — aren’t excluded.

On Monday, Gov. Ralph Northam again encouraged voters to mail in their ballots. But he noted the state has taken several other safety measures related to elections.

“That will include an adequate supply and proper use of PPE for our poll workers,” Northam said.

The state has also called on the newly formed Virginia Medical Reserve Corps to help staff polling places and ensure social distancing and PPE protocols are being followed.

Northam previously suggested postponing the May elections to November.

That plan failed to win enough support in the state Senate after a handful of Democratic senators balked at the prospect of effectively restarting the election cycle with absentee voting already underway.

Northam’s only other option was to delay the elections for two weeks past their originally scheduled date of May 5. Some Democratic lawmakers who supported the move to November have said holding elections poses unacceptable risks to public health. But because the General Assembly and the governor couldn’t agree on a longer-term delay, polling places will open their doors at 6 a.m.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevent has released guidelines on how to run polling places to minimize the potential spread of COVID-19. They include frequent cleaning of voting equipment and surfaces, increasing the distance between voting booths and offering curbside voting for eligible voters who may be more susceptible to the disease due to their age or medical condition.

The state elections department has suggested putting markings on the floor to help voters stay six feet apart.

Some registrars aren’t waiting on the state to solve their supply issues.

Richmond Registrar Kirk Showalter said her office built up its own stockpiles of hand sanitizer and isopropyl alcohol after an exhaustive search for suppliers.

“I begged, borrowed, scraped and finally found a vendor,” Showalter said.

The Richmond election office has also improvised other solutions for the June primaries, like sneeze guards made from shower curtains and PVC pipe.

To follow a CDC recommendation against using senior living centers or nursing homes as polling places, Showalter said she’s made arrangements to set up alternative sites near four Richmond facilities used for voting. For two of them, she’s planning to set up tents in parking lots.

Whether the state’s election planning works out depends partly on how many people show up.

“Feasibility of strategies will depend on the space available in the polling station,” the narrator said in a COVID-19 election training video prepared by the elections department in conjunction with the Virginia Department of Health. “And the number of voters who arrive at one time.”