Despite Gov. Ralph Northam’s plan to postpone May 5 locality elections to November, Virginia voters are casting absentee ballots in record numbers.
The Virginia General Assembly reconvenes Wednesday in Richmond, and Northam is asking lawmakers to move more than 100 locality elections from May until November due to public health concerns over the spread of COVID-19.
“So far, we’ve had 889 applications for absentee ballots that we’ve received. Just under 800 ballots have been issued by mail, and 94 people have voted in person,” Bristol Virginia General Registrar Penny Limburg said Monday. “Generally, we have around 60 absentee voters for a local election.”
The Abingdon Town Council election is the only one on the ballot for Washington County, and thus far, they’ve issued more than 500 absentee ballots, Registrar Derek Lyall said Monday. Four years ago, that election included 66 absentee votes.
“That’s about 47% of the average turnout for an Abingdon Town Council election,” Lyall said.
That percentage is even higher in Bristol, where voters are being asked to select two members of City Council and two members of the School Board. Eight total candidates appear on the ballot — four for each elected body.
“Considering we usually have around 1,500 vote in a general election, we’re past the halfway mark,” Limburg said. “That’s about 60% of the people that generally vote in a local election have voted absentee or requested a ballot.”
All of those votes would be tossed out if the General Assembly concurs with the governor’s assessment that conditions are unsafe for voting. The governor said it would be unwise to subject voters, election workers and candidates to potential virus exposure at crowded polling places.
Northam’s stay-at-home order remains in place for most Virginians due to the COVID-19 outbreak until June 10. That order prohibits gatherings of more than 10 people and promotes social distancing.
Limburg said she’s heard from election officials across the state who are opposed to the change.
“They feel like they’re ready,” she said.
The Virginia Municipal League has voiced its opposition.
“VML adamantly opposes discarding any ballots that have already been cast,” according to an April 10 letter to the governor. “Voters across Virginia submitted their choices for local leadership in good faith that their voices would be heard, with encouragement from the administration and the Department of Elections to vote absentee under Reason 2A [COVID-19]. Localities, under the same direction, have already spent thousands of dollars distributing and processing absentee ballots.
“By postponing ongoing elections until November, the Commonwealth is opening the field of candidacy for both currently contested and uncontested elections by extending deadlines and allowing for new write-in campaigns. VML insists that all original filing deadlines remain in place,” according to the letter.
Northam also said everyone currently in office could continue serving until November, but that raises issues with town and city charters that specify when elected officials are sworn in and take office.
The Voter Registrars Association of Virginia issued an April 15 letter urging support for Northam’s proposal.
“Voters should not be forced to choose between exercising their constitutional rights and preserving their own health and that of their community,” according to association President Allison Robbins.
The League of Women Voters also praised Northam’s call to consolidate the May and November elections and urged rapid expansion of a vote-from-home initiative.
This week’s decision could be settled in the state Senate, where Democrats hold a slim 21-19 advantage, but Sen. Chap Peterson, D-Fairfax, has publicly stated he opposes Northam’s proposal.
“I have heard mixed reaction to the proposed date change,” Del. Will Morefield wrote in an email. “I can fully understand the support for keeping the election date as is and for postponing until November. Ultimately, the majority vote will make the decision.”
Lyall said his office will continue providing absentee ballots.
“I don’t know what the General Assembly will do Wednesday, but we’re proceeding as if the elections are happening until they tell us differently,” Lyall said.
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