Everything You Need To Know About Voting By Mail In Virginia

By Arianna Coghill

May 25, 2020

Including how to register to vote, apply for a mail-in ballot, and the deadlines you need to follow.

Update: Now includes information on voting by mail in the general election.

As the coronavirus pandemic persists across the nation, public health experts and elected officials have promoted voting by mail as a safer way to perform your civic duty, including in Virginia. 

And over the past year, Virginia legislators made it easier to vote absentee. They got rid of the requirement that voters have an “official” excuse to get an absentee ballot, instead of going to the polls. And in early May, the courts ruled that people do not need to have a witness sign their an absentee ballot. 

With the November elections drawing near, here’s a step by step breakdown of the ins and outs of voting by mail in Virginia. 

Am I Eligible to Vote Absentee? 

Anyone is allowed to vote absentee, including by mail, starting 45 days before Election Day. For the November General Election, that day is September 18. However, if you’d like to vote absentee by mail, you have to apply beforehand. You can vote absentee in person without submitting an application.

How Do I Apply to Vote Absentee? 

There are three ways to apply for an absentee ballot in Virginia: Applying online, calling your local registrar’s office, or printing an application at home. 

An absentee ballot can be requested as early as 12 months before an election, but are often mailed out 45 days before the election.

To apply for an online ballot, visit vote.elections.virginia.gov

You’ll need to enter your first and last name, as well as the last four digits of your social security number and the locality you live in. 

Check the box that says you are applying to vote absentee. 

Follow the instructions from there.

If you’re a first time voter or you don’t have state issued identificationyou can call your local registrar’s office and ask them to send an application through the mail or you can download your own application and print it out at home.

To find your local registrar’s office, go here

What is the Deadline to Request an Absentee Ballot? 

For the presidential election, the deadline to request an absentee ballot by mail is October 23 by 5 p.m. The deadline for an absentee ballot in-person is October 31 by 5 p.m. 

How Do I Return an Absentee Ballot? When is the Deadline? 

After you follow the instructions on your ballot, you can drop off your ballot at your local registrar by 7 p.m. on Election Day. If you’re mailing in your ballot, your ballot must be postmarked by Election Day for it to count.

Do You Have to be Registered to Vote in Order to Vote Absentee?

Yes. The deadline to register to vote is October 13. To register online, go here or apply in-person at voter registration offices, public libraries or the DMV offices. 

Could My Vote Get Lost By Mail? Could My Vote Not be Counted? 

Virginia’s Department of Elections announced that residents will be able to track their ballot as it moves through the mail system using a barcode. Voters can see where their ballot is on the state’s citizen portal.

While there’s not much data to suggest a significant number of ballots are getting lost in the mail, there is evidence that thousands of ballots were not counted due to voter errors, namely clerical mistakes or tardiness.

In the 2020 presidential primaries, Virginia had more rejected ballots than any other state, with almost 4,000 votes getting disqualified because they were mailed in past the deadline. The Postal Service recommends mailing in your ballot no later than one week before the election to ensure it is counted.

According to Charles Stuart, a political scientist for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, those who use mail in voting for the first time, especially young Black and Latinx voters, are more likely to be rejected because of errors. 

Besides tardiness, other mistakes like mismatched or missing signatures can also lead to a vote not being counted.

Original article from May 25 below:

With the coronavirus pandemic still raging across the nation, it appears as though voting by mail will play a huge role in this year’s June primaries. The primaries, delayed by two weeks due to the pandemic, will take place on June 23. And with Election Day right around the corner, here’s everything you need to know about voting absentee in Virginia. 

In order to prevent further spread of the coronavirus across the state, absentee voting has been encouraged by elected and election officials alike. Both the governor’s office and the Virginia Department of Elections are pushing for Virginia voters to vote by mail this June. 

During this recent General Assembly session, Gov. Ralph Northam signed several bills into law that would facilitate voting in Virginia, including a law that allows no-excuse absentee voting that’ll go into effect on July 1. 

Earlier in the month, a Lynchburg judge approved Attorney General Mark Herring’s request to waive witness signatures that were previously necessary for absentee ballots. Herring stated that the ruling would “promote public health and participation in elections by encouraging safe absentee voting in the June 23 primaries.”  

“This agreement is a win for Virginia voters and a win for democracy. No Virginian should ever have to put their own health and safety at risk to exercise their right to vote,” said Attorney General Herring to NBC 12. “Now, susceptible Virginians will not have to jeopardize their well-being and violate social distancing measures to cast their ballot by mail.”

During the state’s May 2020 elections, absentee voting appeared to be residents’ preferred method of voting in many towns and cities.

 A total of 86,922 of the 90,942 people who requested an absentee ballot for Tuesday’s municipal elections in over 110 towns and cities listed “disability or illness” as their reason, a choice encouraged by the VDoE due to COVID-19. 

According to data from the Virginia Public Access Project, there were 15 Virginia towns and eight cities where over 60% of accounted votes were absentee. Historically, absentee votes in presidential elections don’t break 10% in Virginia. 

Virginia Towns with Over 60% of Absentee Votes

  • Irvington with 92.86%
  • Louisa with 91.61%
  • Kilmarnock with 89.49%
  • White Stone with 87.05%
  • Vinton with 86.75%
  • Vienna with 77.04%
  • Madison with 75.00%
  • Round Hill with 75.00%
  • The Plains with 68.09%
  • Hamilton with 67.79%
  • Abingdon with 66.83%
  • Occoquan with 64.66%
  • Hillsville with 62.75%
  • Warrenton with 61.03%
  • Haymarket with 59.56%

Virginia Towns with Over 60% of Absentee Votes

  • Fredericksburg City with 75.82%
  • Fairfax City with 74.02%
  • Williamsburg City with 67.94%
  • Waynesboro City with 66.29%
  • Bristol City with 63.53%
  • Salem City with 63.25%
  • Staunton City with 62.24%
  • Galax City with 60.24%

Election officials anticipate a similar increase in the upcoming presidential elections. 

“We certainly expect more Virginians to vote early for the November General election, not only due to COVID-19 but also new legislation,” said the VDoE. 

In early March, Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy (D-Prince William) urged Northam in March to request election officials to consider the feasibility of executing an all vote-by-mail system in Virginia for November’s election. Under Foy’s model, voters would automatically receive ballots in the mail. 

“While we hope that this pandemic will have subsided by November, it is prudent to prepare for the possibility of needing to hold an all vote-by-mail election…,” Foy said.  “If we keep our current system, I am concerned that we would have limited time to inform all voters on how to apply for an absentee ballot.”

Currently, there are five states that have elections operate under a mail only ballot system: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 21 other states allow municipal elections to be conducted on mailed out bailouts. 

However, not everybody supports absentee voting in these unprecedented times. Recently, a lawsuit was filed against elections officials by voters who claim that voting by mail is not necessary during the pandemic. 

“The same social distancing and good hygiene practices — which are effective for preventing the spread of the virus when going out for essential services, like grocery shopping and other essential services — are also an effective way to prevent the spread of the virus for in-person voting,” the lawsuit states.

Herring’s spokeswoman, Charlotte P.L. Gomer, said that the “conservative activists” who filed the suit were “are engaged in thinly veiled voter suppression by trying to force Virginians to choose between their health and the right to vote.”

“Their suit would disenfranchise tens of thousands of Virginians by changing the rules in the middle of an election in which absentee ballots have already been mailed and cast,” said Gomer. 

Currently under Virginia law, any eligible voter can request an absentee ballot in Virginia-online, mail or in-person.  In order to vote absentee, The signed and completed application must be received by the local registrar located in the city or county that you are registered to vote by 5:00 p.m. eastern standard time on the Tuesday prior to the election in which the applicant wishes to vote.

Correction: This story incorrectly identified the deadline for sending in an absentee ballot. We regret the error.

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