Virginia will require tracking codes on all absentee ballot envelopes

(Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

All Virginia voters who cast absentee ballots will send their forms back in envelopes marked with tracking codes, according to a new rule adopted Tuesday by the State Board of Elections.

The regulation, approved in a unanimous vote, requires local election officials to print a 65-character U.S. Postal Service Intelligent Mail barcode on both the outgoing envelopes sent to voters and the included return envelopes voters use to mail completed ballots back.

“This regulation requiring these will allow registrars to track the absentee ballots as they make their way to voters,” said Danny Davenport, a policy analyst at the Virginia Department of Elections. “And then also it will allow voters to track their completed ballots as they make their way back to the registrar’s office.”

Some localities have already started using the tracking codes, but the new regulation makes the practice mandatory across the state. State officials said every locality currently has the capability to print the barcodes on their envelopes.

The change comes as election officials across the country try to boost confidence in election integrity amid a nationwide shift to voting by mail during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The regulation also requires all ballot envelopes to be marked with an official insignia identifying as election-related mail, which officials said will help the Postal Service spot and prioritize votes moving through its system.

President Donald Trump has assailed the idea of widespread mail-in voting, despite little to no evidence of widespread absentee ballot fraud and the fact that he and members of his administration have voted absentee. He seemed to partially reverse himself Tuesday, taking to Twitter to encourage Floridians to vote by mail and telling them they have a “Safe and Secure” system.

That’s the same message Virginia election officials have tried to send.

“Casting a ballot by mail is a safe and secure process,” Elections Commissioner Chris Piper said Tuesday, adding that it will be “a new process” for a significant number of voters who haven’t done it in the past.

In addition to the public health crisis, the Democratic-led Virginia General Assembly voted this year to loosen absentee voting rules, allowing 45 days of early voting for anyone who wants to take advantage of it. Previously, voters had to offer a valid excuse for why it would be difficult or impossible for them to go to their polling place on Election Day.

To protect against mail snafus, the General Assembly also passed legislation allowing registrars to accept absentee ballots received by noon on the third day after an election as long as the ballot has a postmark showing it was cast on or before Election Day. 

On Tuesday, the elections board adopted another regulation specifying that late-arriving ballots with a missing or illegible postmark must be counted.

Proponents said the rule would ensure no otherwise valid ballot would be tossed out due to a technicality that’s not the voter’s fault. But some Republicans objected, arguing it could conceivably allow someone to fill out and send in their ballot after the polls have closed.