POWHATAN – An error with a direct mailing letter sent to almost 7,000 Powhatan voters being notified of a polling precinct change resulted in a large percentage of them being told to go to the wrong precinct.
Director of elections Karen Alexander said her office was inundated with calls and emails from concerned voters who started receiving the letters Tuesday, Oct. 13. The letters were part of an effort to notify registered voters impacted by three voting precinct changes made because of COVID-19 and space concerns.
The office of elections hired BMS Direct, a direct mailing company it and other county offices have used without issue in the past, to mail the letters, Alexander said. However, the company not only sent out the letters, which were dated Oct. 2, a good three weeks late but also believes it stuffed many of the letters into envelopes out of order and mailed them without realizing the mistake.
“We didn’t know until voters received them today and called very confused that we had them perhaps registered in an incorrect precinct,” Alexander said late Tuesday night. “No one’s address has been changed. They are registered to vote in the same precinct they have been. The letter was just sent to them incorrectly.”
The letters themselves did not have voters’ names and addresses on them because it cut down the cost of the mailing, she said. Having letters sent to the corresponding address instead of to the corresponding voter has not been an issue before.
The mailing company has agreed to reissue corrected letters this week, along with a letter of apology explaining what happened, Alexander said. Representatives with the company have said they will “do everything they can to have those hit the mail by Thursday so voters have them by Saturday so the correction is taken care of within the week,” she added.
Of course, the problem remains that the damage has been done and there is now mistrust with voters, a distraught Alexander said late Tuesday night. She and her staff were on the phone all day fielding questions, and she was still in her office after 9 p.m. returning the calls of people who couldn’t get through and left voicemails.
Anger and confusion were compounded because of a line on the letter saying recipients had until Oct. 13 to make any changes to their voter registration information, Alexander noted. However, that was the date many people started receiving it.
“There are a lot of people who feel this had to have been done on purpose because of all of the issues of voter fraud going on in the world right now. I absolutely respect and understand those concerns. I can’t speak on behalf of the mailing company – nor will I – but I know there was no ill intent from this office,” she said. “I am extremely frustrated that my voters had this happen. Powhatan voters did not deserve this. It doesn’t matter whose fault it was. The issue is that people are now confused.”
In speaking with people who called the office or while returning calls when they could, Alexander said voters were often extremely frustrated and confused. After hearing her and her staff explain what happened and apologize, “most people were very gracious and understanding and thankful for a real honest answer.”
“I am hoping to have time tomorrow to return the rest of the voicemails that we couldn’t get through today to extend that message,” she said.
Alexander reiterated that anyone with concerns about going to a new voting precinct still has a few weeks to early vote either by mail-in ballot or at the early voting tent behind the Village Building. The early voting precinct is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday through Oct. 30 and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on two Saturdays, Oct. 24 and 31.
Tuesday was further complicated by a power outage first thing in the morning in the Village that delayed the start of early voting and a statewide registration system outage that lasted several hours, preventing Virginians from registering to vote on the final day before the deadline, Alexander said.
“People were not able to go online to update their registration as they had planned, so a lot of people were calling the office trying to get registered, but we weren’t able to access what they needed us to,” she said.
Attorney General Mark R. Herring issued a statement late Tuesday night saying he has asked the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia to extend the deadline for voter registration by two days, through Oct. 15, because of the registration system outage. A hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. Wednesday in front of Judge John A. Gibney Jr.
“I have asked the court to extend the voter registration deadline because it’s so important to make up for the time Virginians lost today and give people an opportunity to register to vote if they have not yet done so,” Herring said. “Over the last several months, I have worked hard to reach agreements and take other actions to protect Virginians’ right to vote and this situation is no different. We are 21 days away from the most important election of our lifetimes and I want to make sure that every Virginian who wants to vote has the opportunity to do so.”
Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.