Masks will be strongly encouraged at Virginia polling places, but not mandatory

By: - October 20, 2020 4:37 pm

Desirée Charity casting an early ballot in person at the new Richmond registrar’s office on Oct. 20. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Virginia voters who show up on Election Day without a mask or visibly sick will be asked to put a mask on or cast their ballot outside the polling place, but they won’t be denied access if they refuse, according to state election officials.

At a virtual media briefing Tuesday on the state’s plans for a coronavirus-disrupted presidential election, Elections Commissioner Chris Piper said the state can’t prohibit anyone from voting if they insist on casting a ballot indoors without wearing a mask.

“If voters do not have a mask they will be asked to wear one and possible could be offered a mask if there are extra and be offered the opportunity to vote curbside,” Piper said in a statement to the Mercury after the briefing. “Ultimately, a voter will not be turned away if they are not wearing a mask but the department strongly encourages them to do so to keep themselves and others around them safe.”

Election officials are planning to have stockpiles of masks at polling places, purchased with federal CARES Act funding.

Curbside voting is usually available for people 65 and older or those with physical disabilities, allowing them to cast ballots without leaving their vehicle.

Mask in polling places is a policy question officials have wrestled with across the country as they try to balance the need to make voting accessible to all with rules requiring masks to be worn in most indoor spaces.

Voters will not be asked to remove their masks to verify a photo on their ID, election officials said. Election workers will be allowed to temporarily remove their masks in order to assist voters who need to read lips.

Virginia law says it’s illegal for anyone inside a polling place to “hinder or delay a qualified voter.” Violations are punishable as a misdemeanor carrying fines of up to $2,500 and/or up to a year in jail.

On May 29, Gov. Ralph Northam signed an executive order mandating that face coverings be worn in businesses, restaurants, entertainment venues, government buildings and “any other indoor place shared by groups of people who are in close proximity to each other.”

But since the beginning of the pandemic, Northam has stressed he’s not seeking maximum enforcement of social distancing policies and expects Virginians to voluntarily comply with public-health guidelines.

In a statement, Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said the governor “expects every person to wear a mask when voting, period.”

“Virginia currently mandates face coverings be worn inside public places, and he takes this order seriously — that’s why he supports legislation imposing a civil fine for violations of this (or other) executive orders,” Yarmosky said. “The right to vote is well-protected in the Constitution, however, and no one can be prevented from voting due to a lack of a mask alone. However, if a voter is not wearing a mask they will be asked to vote curbside, vote by mail or drop off an absentee ballot instead.”

The absentee options will not be available to voters not wearing masks on Election Day.

Even though election officials may not strictly enforce mask-wearing, there’s been no shortage of viral Internet videos of heated confrontations in businesses caused by anti-mask customers, some involving workers enforcing mask rules and some involving other customers doing vigilante mask enforcement.

Though there don’t appear to have been any publicized examples of mask-related conflicts at polling places during Virginia’s early voting period, it’s possible many voters who oppose masks or doubt the seriousness of COVID-19 are less likely to take advantage of early voting and plan to vote in person on Nov. 3 as they normally would.

It’s also likely the crowds will be scarcer on Election Day since more than 1.3 million Virginians have already voted early, either in person or by returning an absentee ballot through the mail or a drop-off box. On Election Day, poll workers will be taking other social distancing measures like limiting the number of people allowed inside and disinfecting frequently used surfaces.

As of Tuesday, 3,485 people in Virginia had died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

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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.