Huge percentages of absentee voters in May show state must prepare for the same this fall

May 27, 2020 12:01 am

A poll worker in Richmond holds an “I Voted” sticker. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Voters in several localities around the commonwealth participated in last week’s local elections, even if they didn’t queue up at their regular precincts. Given the chance to vote absentee by mail – something state officials had encouraged during the coronavirus pandemic – Virginians did so in droves.

That implies two things: We’re taking our civic roles seriously. And we’re scared as hell that being too close to others could mean catching COVID-19, the illness caused by coronavirus. 

I include myself; I voted absentee by mail in local elections in Chesapeake, one of dozens of communities that held contests. That was the case even though May municipal elections historically have had low turnout.

People are frightened because of the deaths and potentially debilitating effects from COVID-19. As I write this, the nation’s death toll has climbed steadily toward 100,000. That’s about the number of every man, woman and child in individual localities like Montgomery County, Roanoke and Portsmouth. 

It’s a mournful, depressing roll call.

Virginians also may have known what happened last month in Wisconsin, where dozens of voters and poll workers contracted COVID-19.  It’s not clear whether the April 7 election caused the infections, according to a news report.

Statistics from the nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project reveal the huge percentages of state residents who voted absentee rather than risk a trip to the polls. The totals included 76 percent in Fredericksburg, 74 percent in Fairfax City and 68 percent in Williamsburg. 

Those stats weren’t the case everywhere, sure, but some of the numbers were staggering.

So this is a wake-up call for what lays ahead for the November presidential and congressional elections, especially if COVID-19 deaths and infections continue unabated. The state must help protect voters and poll workers, plus provide timely and accurate counts from absentee ballots. The latter would reduce conspiracy theories if there’s a close contest for the presidency.

You could’ve predicted, of course, that President Donald Trump would rail about the likelihood of increased absentee voting this fall.  

He’s made wild accusations about voter fraud in general, and he even empaneled a much-maligned commission to “investigate” the 2016 election. (His brittle feelings were hurt when he won the electoral vote, but lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million to Hillary Clinton. What a sore winner.) 

The commission disbanded in 2018 without discovering evidence of widespread voter fraud. 

Fear not: The Tweeter-in-Chief brayed recently that a couple of states were planning to do nefarious things with absentee ballots, even though he’s voted by mail in the past. Or that Americans have voted by mail for more than a century, according to the Fact Checker feature in The Washington Post. 

You know what makes this controversy especially rich? Had Trump and his minions not responded so late and incompetently to the pandemic, Americans might not have to worry about standing in line this fall.

Virginia’s legislature has made absentee voting easier, passing SB111 this year. It takes effect July 1. The new law says voters don’t have to give an excuse for opting to cast an absentee ballot; previously, you had to answer “yes” to one of about 20 reasons. 

Still, Richard L. Hasen, an elections expert at the University of California at Irvine, warned of potential problems in some places in November. Hasen told me, by email, that states unfamiliar with counting large numbers of vote-by-mail ballots “may be inundated with ballot requests, and some voters may not get their ballots in time. And that could disenfranchise voters.

“I’m also worried,” he continued, “that there will be a delay in processing and counting absentee ballots, and this raises concerns that people can claim fraud as the count is slow.” 

Yet Hasen reiterated in a Washington Post op-ed Wednesday that “absentee ballot fraud is very rare — there were 491 prosecutions related to absentee ballots in all elections nationwide between 2000 and 2012, out of literally billions of ballots cast.” 

So what is Virginia doing to prepare? 

Andrea Gaines, spokeswoman with the Virginia Department of Elections, told me by email the agency encourages voters to return their absentee ballot as soon as possible. She also said the state has helped localities by providing personal protective equipment, as well as partnering with the Virginia Medical Reserve Corps to provide training and volunteers for communities.

Will it all be enough? 

We’ll find out come November – in whatever way we choose to vote.


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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]