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Local election officials advocate for mail-only Virginia balloting

By Dan Casey
dan.casey@roanoke.com

Looking down the road just a little ways, Virginia’s voter registrars are facing a daunting responsibility. They’re charged with organizing local elections this May, likely congressional primary elections in June, and general elections in November.

Along with local electoral boards that oversee registrars, many are wondering how they’re going to pull that off with a highly communicable, potentially deadly virus sweeping the commonwealth and the nation.

For that reason, election officials in Virginia ought to begin planning now for all-mail elections both this spring and later in the fall.

In a letter to the state Department of Elections last week, Virginia registrars called for vote-by-mail only local elections in May and congressional primary elections in June. Roanoke is among the cities that will hold both.

Others looking even deeper into the calendar are calling on the state to consider all-mail elections in November, too. Monday, members of the Roanoke County Electoral Board said the state Department of Elections should begin preparing now for those.

Jeff Krasnow, vice chairman of that board, said Virginia’s March 3 Democratic primary starkly drove that point home.

“I discovered what I saw as a very urgent need for Virginia to adopt a system of vote by mail,” Krasnow told me. “If we don’t start moving on it now, we’re not going to be able to have it in November.”

A vote-by-mail system would be a foreign concept to most Virginia voters. Although absentee balloting has increased in the commonwealth in recent years — and a law that took effect last year made it somewhat easier — voting that way currently is a five-step process that Krasnow called “cumbersome.”

Voters must procure an absentee ballot application form, then fill it out and mail the application to their local registrar. Once the registrar determines the voter is registered, it mails a ballot, which the voter comletes and returns either in person or by mail.

Ballots are counted provided they’re filled out correctly and arrive by the end of the day on Election Day. However, in just about every registrar’s office, mailed absentee ballots continue to trickle in after that deadline.

Late (uncounted) ballots are typically mailed before Election Day but delivered afterward by the U.S. Postal Service. Most of those show up within the week after Election Day. But occasionally, they arrive weeks or months late.

“There are lots of unknowns,” Krasnow said in phone interview Monday. He recommended that the Virginia General Assembly take up the matter during a veto session that currently is scheduled for April 22.

In some other states, all-mail balloting it not a foreign concept. According to the National Council of State Legislatures, Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington conduct all elections by mail only. Utah began all-mail elections this year.

At least 20 other states have laws that allow local elections to be conducted by mail. The process is not necessarily complicated.

In Colorado, for example, authorities mail every registered voter a ballot. Voters can mail them back or return them in person during a specified voting period.

In California — unlike Virginia — all mailed ballots that are postmarked on or before Election Day are counted. One problem is, that delays the count well beyond Election Day.

Even though the California’s Democratic primary was held March 3, as of Monday afternoon more than 256,000 ballots there were still awaiting processing. The California Secretary of State has until April 10 — more than five weeks after the primary election — to certify the result.

Roanoke County Registrar Anna Cloeter said Monday that for her office, an all-mail election would be easier to administer and less costly to staff than traditional in-person voting at precincts spread around the county.

For that, her office must recruit 300 election officers, she added. Normally, a large proportion of them are retired senior citizens who are at greater risk of dying if they’re infected with COVID-19.

An all-mail election “is one of those things we could easily do if [Virginia’s] government could go head and practice some swift planning, particularly now because they know they’ve got a problem,” Cloeter said.

A March 19 letter, from Virginia registrars and electoral board members, recommended the Virginia Department of Elections close all polling places for May local elections and June primaries and conduct those elections by mail only.

Signed by Allison Robbins, president of the Voter Registrars Association of Virginia and Barbara Taab, president of the Virginia Electoral Board Association, the letter raised a total of 17 concerns about traditional precinct voting and in-person absentee voting at registrars’ offices.

Chris Piper, commissioner of the Department of Elections, responded the March 20 that the letter “got me thinking.”

Piper added: “We are in unprecedented times and we have had to make unprecedented decisions often on the fly, but we are doing it all together because we are in this all together and we will get through this all together. The situation continues to evolve and we will continue to update you with additional guidance. “

Ken Srpan, chairman of the Roanoke County Electoral Board, said he found Piper’s response less than reassuring. Local elections in May are only 45 days away, he added.

“I just wish the Elections Department would be more forthcoming with direction on what to do and how to conduct the upcoming elections,” Srpan told me.

“We’re not getting anything right now.”