Access to ballot boxes and other measures will help all voters

September 2, 2020 12:45 am

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

Voting drop boxes aren’t sinister repositories of fraud. They’re not working overtime to deny candidates their proper electoral victories.

That’s true no matter what opponents of greater ballot access contend. Their fevered suspicions aren’t supported by something I call “proof.”

That’s why the Virginia General Assembly deserves kudos for passing initiatives in the current special session making it easier, and safer, for people to cast ballots for president and other offices this fall. It’s unfortunate Republicans in Richmond voted against the measures in such large numbers; the proposals help all voters, regardless of party preference.

The initiatives included mandating drop boxes at voting precincts — giving voters an alternative to putting absentee ballots in the mail — and using $2 million for pre-paid postage on mail-in ballots. Some localities already have drop boxes, but the legislative measures would add surveillance cameras, for example.

“We absolutely support the package,” a spokeswoman for Gov. Ralph Northam’s office told me this week.

Of course Northam does: He’s getting much of the voting initiatives he laid out the same day the session started.

Let’s remember why we’re at this point, and why voting access has been such a big part of state lawmakers’ agenda this summer:

The COVID-19 pandemic has killed more than 181,000 people and disrupted life around the United States. More than 6 million people have been infected nationwide. COVID-19 is a contagious respiratory illness, and it spreads mainly from person-to-person through respiratory droplets, like sneezing or spittle.

President Donald Trump’s administration, meanwhile, has responded fecklessly, incompetently. Trump and his minions early on ceded leadership to the states; highlighted information that conflicted with the advice of medical experts; and then urged state economies to reopen before infections were under control.

Trump was more concerned about winning re-election than tackling the pandemic head-on. History, and the relatives of the dead, will judge his recklessness harshly.

Given the very existential threats, nobody wants to stand in long, packed election lines Nov. 3. The waiting increases the risk voters will catch the illness, endangering themselves or others in their families.

Trump then demonized voting by mail, even though he uses it himself. His son Donald Jr. recently urged voters to cast absentee ballots in robocalls targeting 13 states, including Virginia.

So it’s good enough for them and their followers, but not for anyone else.

Meanwhile, the country’s new postmaster general, a Trump ally, altered procedures that are now blamed for slowing down the mail and threatening ballot delivery this fall. A congressional backlash forced Louis DeJoy to reverse course.

All of these circumstances spurred the moves by Northam and the Assembly. They want to ensure voters have the tools to cast ballots, that they arrive on time if returned by mail, and that drop boxes are available if citizens are skittish about using the post office.

The voting measures in Richmond, which still face legislative steps before reaching Northam, will cause local registrars plenty of headaches, no doubt. Many cities and counties already had huge amounts of absentee ballot requests, and now officials will face additional requirements in the coming weeks.

They’re necessary, however.

Mary Lynn Pinkerman is Chesapeake’s general registrar. She told me the city has already received 12,000 absentee ballot applications – equal to the total number Pinkerman got in 2016, though some are duplicate requests. She expects as many as 4,000 more absentee applications.

The city plans to add satellite sites at most of its library branches. It already has a drop box at the voter registrar’s office.

A drop box for ballots sits outside the Chesapeake voter registrar’s office. (Roger Chesley/ Virginia Mercury)

Pinkerman said that drop box needs to have surveillance cameras and a system installed by Sept. 18. That’s when absentee ballots will be mailed out and people can begin to vote in person.

Speaking of those drop boxes, the only controversy emanates from people who fear their misuse. Several states already deploy them regularly, including Colorado, Oregon and Washington, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Trump has criticized drop boxes on Twitter, but he’s also admitted slowing funding to the Postal Service. I’m sure he’d rather only his supporters could vote — and he’s hasn’t been shy in his machinations.

That’s why the General Assembly’s voting measures were needed. They’ll make Election Day — and the weeks leading up to it — safer.

Virginians shouldn’t have to choose between voting and risking illness or death.

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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]