Counting down to Election Day? For election officials, it’s already here

2020 Election

Voters wait in line at local registrar’s offices in Chesterfield (right), Richmond (top left) and Henrico (bottom left). (Photos taken by 8News’ Dean Mirshahi)

While Election Day is still weeks away, election officials in Virginia have already seen long lines of voters, dealt with ballot issues and increased hiring in order to meet the demands of the unprecedented election season.

In some cases this year, local registrars have teams that are ten times larger than in previous elections.

Early voting in Virginia has surged since Sept. 18, the day it began, after a new law permitting no-excuse absentee voting went into effect in July. In previous elections, voters were required to provide a qualifying excuse to vote absentee or early in the commonwealth.

Voters wary of heading to the polls amid a pandemic have taken advantage of the change, requesting absentee ballots at a record pace. Those concerned with what polling places will look like on Election Day, going to the post office or mailing in their ballot have been voting early or dropping off their ballots at local registrar’s offices.

Election officials have implemented new health guidelines due to the coronavirus pandemic, hire and train new workers, work through sudden ballot changes and deal with the flow of early voters, shouldering the heavier workload all while preparing for Nov. 3.

Preparing for an unprecedented election

Holding an election during a pandemic, like others before them, requires planning and preparation. However, this year registrars and other election officials have had to change the way they’ve typically prepped for an election.

Local general registrar’s offices have adopted similar tactics as some businesses — such as placing space markers on the ground to show voters how traffic outside and inside the buildings should flow, and how far they should be from each other in line.

“Definitely a change of pace. But good news, election officials are very adaptable,” said Richmond General Registrar J. Kirk Showalter.

Showalter has tripled her staff to deal with the workload and has instituted cleaning regimens for workers to follow. Poll workers are required to wear face coverings and those interacting with voters are separated by a barrier and have a more than six feet of space between them and the next worker.

But the top priority for Showalter was finding a new location in the city to accommodate the flood of voters. Showalter said she pressed the city for the new building because she knew that the City Hall location would not work. The entire space downtown, where some employees had to share desks, was the same size as the lobby outside the new office, she said.

Showalter explained that the new registrar’s office, located at 2134 West Laburnum Avenue, allows her team the opportunity to develop a path for voters to follow while inside the building, limiting the interaction between people as they vote early or drop off their absentee ballot. Showalter added that she didn’t expect the turnout she’s seen already, but she’s grateful for the decisions that have eased the process, including GRTC’s decision to shuttle voters to the new location.

“Sometimes people don’t understand the scope until it’s here,” she said. “This building has been a godsend.”

“It’s been an Election Day, every single day.”

The early voting turnout has been staggering. This year, the number of Virginians taking part in early voting is nearly two times as much as in 2016, according to numbers from the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project.

More than 200,000 voters in Virginia have already cast their ballots in person for the November election, according to the state’s Department of Elections, and nearly 1 million have applied for absentee ballots through the mail. During the 2016 presidential election, for comparison, 566,000 Virginians cast their ballot absentee, according to Gov. Ralph Northam.

The high turnout numbers did not surprise Chesterfield registrar Constance L. Hargrove.

“I believe it,” she said last Wednesday when a little more than 100,000 Virginians voted in person. Hargrove said that Chesterfield had 1,148 people come in to vote in person on the first day of early voting.

In Richmond, Showalter said that roughly 2,100 people voted in the first three days of early voting this year. In 2016, less than 50 people showed up to vote early in person.

“Virginia has clearly embraced no excuse voting,” she said.

And local election officials have noticed the difference in 2020, with lines stretching outside and around general registrar’s offices for more than a week. Many told 8News that it’s been common to see hundreds of people in the lines each day, most have moved quickly, to vote.

“It’s been an Election Day, every single day,” said Smithson, Hanover County’s elections chief.

“We’re slammed, we can’t do our day jobs.” 

Teresa Smithson, Hanover County’s general registrar and director of elections, arrives at her office at least 30 minutes early each day, telling 8News that her staff has to start the day off early in order to handle the unprecedented workload they have during this year’s election cycle.

Election workers prepare ballots that have to be mailed out, make sure polling booths are sanitized and procedures are in place all before the general registrar’s office opens and voters begin to arrive.

Smithson cited the high number of requests for absentee ballots and no-excuse early voting as reasons for the busy season. For example, Hanover sent out 10,000 absentee ballots on Sept. 18, according to Smithson, and only has 81,000 registered voters in the whole county.

“Our phones haven’t stopped ringing,” Smithson said. “We need more people working mail, just mail, to help the lines.”

Local election officials also shared their concerns over voters’ lack of understanding of basic regulations and rules.

Hargrove, Showalter and Smithson agreed that the most common mistake they have seen is when residents who requested absentee ballots have come in to vote early in person without bringing in their absentee ballot. One Richmond man broke down and began to cry after he was informed that he couldn’t vote on Sept. 18 because he made this mistake, Showalter said.

Smithson added that some issues, such as delays, have been prompted by unexpected changes with ballots, including the removal of the witness signature requirement and the uncertainty surrounding Kanye West being on the ballot. These issues have overwhelmed election workers, many of whom have to stay late just to prepare for the next day, she told 8News.

“We’re slammed, we can’t do our day job,” Smithson said.

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