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Election officials raise questions about safety of upcoming elections

By Alison Graham

Electoral boards and registrars across the state are concerned about offering in-person voting for the upcoming May and June elections amid the coronavirus pandemic. In a letter sent last week, two associations asked the state to close polling locations and accept only mail-in ballots.

The Voter Registrars Association of Virginia and the Virginia Electoral Board Association sent a joint letter to Chris Piper, the Virginia Department of Elections commissioner, detailing potential issues connected to in-person voting.

The letter cited concerns about the safety of voters who come to polling locations, sanitizing voting machines and materials, previously closed polling locations opening to the public, and the participation of election officials, who are often seniors and retirees expected to self-quarantine.

“Voters should not be forced to choose between exercising their constitutional rights and preserving their own health and that of their community,” the letter read. “Conducting the May and June elections entirely by mail is common sense and strikes the correct balance between protecting voter’s rights while simultaneously protecting their personal health.”

More than 50 localities will be conducting May municipal elections, including Salem, Vinton, Boones Mill, Rocky Mount and Radford, all of which have open seats on their city and town councils. Absentee voting for May elections started March 20. Congressional primaries, including for the Republican to challenge U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., will be on ballot in June.

The Department of Elections previously issued a notice encouraging voters to use absentee ballots for the May elections. State law requires voters to provide a reason for voting absentee, but the department extended that to every voter because of the pandemic.

Voters can choose reason “2A My disability or illness” on their absentee ballots. This designation does not require supplemental documentation.

Allison Robbins, president of the Voter Registrars Association of Virginia, said the group is seeking guidance from the state health and elections departments on how to proceed among growing concerns about the safety of election officials, their families and voters.

The letter asks state officials a myriad of questions: How do offices ensure an adequate number of election officials staff polling places? How often should equipment, pens, tables and privacy booths be sanitized? How do offices balance the right of people to observe polling places with citizens also practicing social distancing?

Robbins said the only two options are to proceed as normal and hope everything works out in May and June, or to plan now in an effort to mitigate these issues.

“It’s becoming increasingly concerning for all of us who are responsible for conducting elections to know what it is we should be doing and ensuring we’re not creating a distribution method for this virus,” Robbins said. “If we’re going to allow in-person voting, how do we make sure we’re not creating the potential for community spread?”

Local election officials in Roanoke County and Salem said some poll workers have already dropped out over concerns about their health.

Roanoke County Electoral Board Chairman Ken Srpan said he agreed with restricting the election to mail-in ballots only.

“If it’s in person, there’s going to be problems,” he said. “I think this is the only solution right now.”

Robbins said state officials have not responded to the letter as of Monday.