Investigation: Record numbers expected to vote by mail, but some remain wary despite reassurances

2020 Election

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — If COVID-19 were on the ballot Nov. 3, it wouldn’t get any votes, but it’s still a major player in the election.

The pandemic is causing far more voters to cast their ballots by mail. Some Virginia voters that 10 On Your Side talked with say they don’t feel it’s secure — even though five states vote exclusively by mail.

“It’s a major change from our previous process,” said Tim Barrow, a member of the Virginia Beach Electoral Board, to gathered media at the registrar’s office earlier this month.

Election workers will process more mail-in ballots this time than ever before. That’s why security is paramount at registrars’ offices across Hampton Roads. In Virginia Beach alone, they’re expecting between 75,000 and 100,000 mail-in ballots, compared to 30,000 in 2016.

Meanwhile, Chesapeake had 24,000 mailed ballots already by Oct. 2, four times as many as it received for the 2016 election.

But public opinion on mail-in ballots is not exactly a vote of confidence. People told us they’d feel more at-ease by voting in person, that their concerns for having their vote properly registered outweighed their concerns for catching the coronavirus.

Election officials say the mail-in process is safe and secure.

“We put our blood, sweat and tears into those mail-in ballots. We definitely take good care of them,” said Chesapeake Registrar Mary Lynn Pinkerman.

We wanted to know how long it took for a mailed ballot to get to its destination. So, our investigative team mailed dummy ballots and tracked the time to get to their destination.

10 On Your Side created letters to serve as dummy ballots and mailed them from a variety of post offices and mailboxes in Norfolk to a particular employee’s address — also in Norfolk — to see how quickly mail moves.

The dummy ballots all arrived in either two or three days.

And despite claims by President Donald Trump that mailed ballots are “being sold, they’re being dumped in rivers, and this is a horrible thing for our country,” the people who study elections here and nationwide say mail-in ballots are secure.

“There isn’t any concern about the security of the process, and there isn’t a lot of history that demonstrates any sort of lack of security with vote-by-mail,” said Tom Lopach, CEO of Seven Oaks Media Group.

Lopach’s Washington-based PR firm began a nationwide information campaign about vote-by-mail back in May, and then ramped it up even further in August.

“What we do know is that vote-by-mail enables people to vote in the safety and security and comfort of their own home,” Lopach said.

Five states conduct their elections exclusively by mail — Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Utah, and Hawaii.

“Our post office has been phenomenal to work with,” said Pinkerman, the Chesapeake registrar. “They make special trips out here as we need them just to pick up ballots. They’ve just gone really over and above to try to make sure that these ballots are handled with extra care.”

If there’s a problem with a ballot, election workers will reach out to the voter to give them a chance to correct it. To be valid, a mail-in ballot must be postmarked by Election Day, and reach the registrar by noon Nov. 6.

Pinkerman says she expects to have all of her mail-ins counted by less than a week after election day, and they’ll “bring in extra folks if need be to make it happen before then.”

While you may have heard of stuffing the ballot box, make sure you don’t try to stuff the ballot envelope.

If an election worker receives an envelope with more than one ballot, by law they must choose one at random and throw the other one out.

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