On Tuesday, voters will cast their ballots in congressional primaries across the state. Not everyone actually will go to the polls, however. Because of the global coronavirus pandemic, many voters are taking advantage of the state’s push to send in an absentee ballot.
The primary will mark Virginia’s second experience with voting during the public health crisis. In May’s municipal elections, almost a whopping half of voters opted for absentee ballots. And thousands more dropped off their ballots through curbside setups. That trend is continuing for the Tuesday’s elections, judging by the heavy volume of absentee ballots requested.
The highly contagious coronavirus has upended so many aspects of our life and poses a unique challenge to perhaps the most fundamentally American activity: voting.
Virginia, and the United States, must ensure that voting continues unimpeded, fairly and safely in this all-important election year. Americans shouldn’t have to choose between voting or their health, and options must exist for voters to securely cast ballots either in person or absentee. Communication is key.
“The main solutions are simple measures that both parties should be able to embrace: Get as many Americans to vote by mail as possible, then ensure that physical polling places for those who still need them adhere to social distancing and are as safe as possible,” Nathaniel Persily, the James B. McClatchy Professor of Law at Stanford Law School and co-director of the Stanford-MIT Project on a Healthy Election, recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal.
During last month’s city and town elections, we observed strict cleaning protocols at precincts. Election workers were clad in protective gear-clad, wearing masks, gloves, gowns and face-covering shields. Hand sanitizer and wipes were available inside, and polling booths constantly were cleaned. Voters kept pens after using them. Candidates, voters and poll workers alike adhered to social distancing.
Other states this spring have experienced election challenges caused by dealing with the pandemic.
Earlier this month in Georgia, social-distancing requirements, precinct closures and poll workers pulling out at the last minute because of health concerns contributed to hourslong lines in some precincts, especially in densely populated areas with many voters, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported.
Fortunately, Virginia will become a “no excuse” voting state on July 1, when it drops the restrictive law that requires people to cite one of about 20 reasons why they wish to vote absentee. For now, voters have been encouraged to mark “2A, my disability or illness” on their ballot application because of the coronavirus.
Why you choose to vote absentee is no one’s business and it is an invasion of privacy. Just as you don’t ask people for whom they’re voting, the state has no right to ask why you’ve chosen that method of casting your ballot.
And besides, voting absentee is not new. It dates to the Civil War, when both Union and Confederate soldiers could cast ballots from their battlefield units and have them counted in their home elections.
Polling places symbolize our American democracy, bringing together the community to take part in that all-important act of voting. They must be made safe during these uncertain times. But voters also need to understand how to navigate Virginia’s absentee ballot rules, and what the deadlines and processes are.
This carries a price tag, but ensuring the safety of voters is worth it. As Persily of the Stanford-MIT Project on a Healthy Election wrote, “The pandemic has imposed massive unexpected costs on election jurisdictions. Congress must provide adequate funding to allow jurisdictions to meet those needs, and it shouldn’t skimp.”
Congress appropriated $400 million for election-related aid to states for this year’s federal election cycle in the federal CARES Act. We hope that’s enough.
Virginia received $9 million, which can be used for “the protection of the health and safety of poll workers, staff and voters during the federal election as well as those resulting from anticipated increased demand for absentee ballots … equipment and temporary staff,” according to the state Department of Elections. Local voter registration offices can use the money for voter outreach, including such costs as printing ballots and postage.
Elections officials face critical work in the months ahead. Our advise is don’t worry about over-communicating. Make sure voters understand what their choices are. Send mailings, post frequently on social media, and spread the message wide and far and again and again. It’s about ensuring faith in our elections.