HANOVER — With the 2020 presidential election less than two months away, General Registrar/Director of Elections Teresa “Teri” Smithson provided the Hanover County Board of Supervisors with an update on important deadlines regarding voting by absentee ballot at last week’s regular meeting.
Smithson clarified that early voting in Hanover equates to casting a ballot by an already established absentee system in person.
Early voting begins on Sept. 18. “Early voting in Virginia is simply in-person absentee voting,” Smithson said. “You still come in and get checked in on an electronic poll book just like you would if you went to a polling place.” She described the set-up for early absentee voting in the Wickham Building as a “polling place on steroids.”
Employees who will man the operation are currently being trained and renovations in the old Commissioner of Revenue office are nearing completion. “We are already in training for our part-time staff members who will be managing the day-to-day operations in there,” Smithson said.
The in-person absentee voting office will be open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, with additional hours from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. for the last two Saturdays of October.
Drive-thru curbside voting also will be available on those last two Saturdays. “The parties are excited about having a parade-like atmosphere as they come through and cast their ballots on the curbside,” Smithson said.
Curbside voting will be set up in the rear of the Wickham Building where voters can pull up and call for service if attendants are not already in place. “No one will have to come into the building if they want to vote curbside.”
Voters also will be able to access a ballot box where absentee ballots can be deposited avoiding concerns regarding recent United States Postal Service delivery issues. The box is under 24-hour surveillance and will be emptied three times a day by election officials and representatives from each political party.
“This ballot box was a direct result of COVID,” Smithson said explaining that her office realized early (before recent General Assembly action that requires similar accommodation) that many absentee voters are in a high-risk category for the virus and would need options.
Voters in Virginia are not required to provide a reason to request an absentee ballot, and that adjustment in policy has resulted in an increase in mail-in ballot requests.
“Throw in the issues with the U.S. Postal Service and that ballot box is even more important now because they have the ability to cast their ballot and it’s secure without having to worry if it will get there,” Smithson said.
To date, Smithson’s office has received 8,200 absentee ballot requests for this year’s election compared with a total of 2,500 requests for the 2016 presidential election. “We have no idea what we are looking at when it comes to the in-person voting that’s going to take place in the voting center. We are projecting in the 34,000 to 36,000 range, and it’s hard to wrap your head around that number,” she said.
Smithson said a recent study in Mecklenberg County, North Carolina, revealed that more than 60 percent of their voters opted for absentee ballots and she expects Hanover County’s numbers to be similar.
“We anticipate to have that because we have the trifecta of everything that’s going on in our community right now,” Smithson said.
Add to that an ample amount of misinformation that is filtering through the community regarding in-person voting, and it could produce more requests for absentee ballots. Hanover voters can request absentee ballots until 5 p.m. on Oct. 23.
“People think that our polls are not going to be open in November because they have to make appointments at the DMV to get their driver’s license,” Smithson said. “They think they have to make appointments with us to come in and register to vote. There’s so much miscommunication out there that we are doing our level best to try and dispel some of that anxiety.”
Hanover polls will be open on Election Day, fully staffed to accommodate presidential type levels. Even with the anticipated increase in absentee ballots and number of people voting by mail, numbers at the polls could be substantial, according to Smithson.
“There’s a large number of people who have requested an absentee ballot and are going to hang on to that ballot, and then decide to go to the polls on Nov. 3,” she said. “Then we have another issue.”
The General Assembly recently passed legislation that requires localities to provide ballot boxes at each polling location. “When a voter comes in with their absentee ballot in hand, they’ll be either able to cast that ballot in that little box, or they’ll be able to surrender it and cast a ballot in-person.”
Special electronic tracking systems should prevent voters from voting twice. After an absentee ballot has been requested and sent, “If you go into a precinct and you check in with your name and address, they’re going to see a little banner on the electronic poll book that says there is an outstanding absentee ballot,” Smithson said.
Voting by mail begins Sept. 18 and the last day to register to vote is Oct. 13. The last day to vote early is Oct. 31.
No witness signature is required to vote by absentee ballot for this year’s election, and new measures are in place to make sure ballots are filled out correctly. Curing the ballot is a process by which Smithson’s office can process ballots as they arrive and return ones with incorrect information to the voter for correction before the election. Ballots are qualified as they arrive and place in the machines, but will not be counted until election night.
“If we see that you have missed your apartment number or didn’t sign it or had the wrong address, we get to call or email you or write you to let you know that you have the opportunity to come and fix this error,” Smithson said.”
Photo IDs are no longer required to vote in Virginia, but persons voting in-person must show documents that contain their name and address. New voters will be assigned voter registration cards.
Much of the added expense incurred setting up the Voting Center is covered by an $81,000 allotment provided by recent federal CARES [(Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act] funding. “We used some of that for some high-speed equipment that will help us to facilitate the election night and this onslaught of absentees.”