Voters have questions as ballots say one thing, law another.
RUSTBURG – For those requesting absentee ballots in Virginia, the instructions might seem contradictory. That’s because they are.
Over the past couple of weeks, ballots came with a confusing statement attached. While some ballots and envelopes themselves noted the importance of having a witness present when voting, a new law stated otherwise.
The Virginia Department of Elections released a statement on their website about the controversial issue.
“To all Virginians voting by mail/absentee ballots for the November 3, 2020 elections: If you believe you may not safely have a witness present while completing the absentee ballot for the November 3, 2020 Election, you are not required to have a witness present or have a witness sign your ballot envelope,” the statement reads.
Why the contradiction? It’s because of when the new law took effect. Ballots had to go to the printer no later than Sept. 4. Because the law passed in the General Assembly’s current special session, some cities and counties didn’t receive information about the witness portion after after ballots were printed. Thus, the need for clarification.
The instructions continue, noting that ballots “will not be rejected due to a missing witness signature.” The new law overrides any instructions on ballot envelopes regarding witness signatures.
A local change
Kelly Martin, Campbell County’s general registrar, noted that this election year is different for the local office in many ways.
First, the witness requirement change differentiates from any other presidential election Martin recalled. The local office got a taste of the new method earlier this year.
“We had a June primary and they changed it for that one, due to COVID,” Martin said. “And then they went ahead and changed it for this one, due to COVID.”
Not in the works prior to the pandemic, the lack of a witness for absentee voters could change permanently, but it’s too early to tell.
“It’s kind of like an election-by-election thing,” Martin said. “So the next election we have, if there’s still issues with COVID, I’m sure they would” do the same again.
But for now, the change will only impact the November 3 national vote.
“Just to clarify, it’s just for this election,” Martin said.
The reason for the change
With COVID-19 cases still climbing, the lessened restriction could prevent an even larger virus-related spike. The change is especially important for those with pre-existing health conditions, weakened immune systems and the elderly – populations more prone to complications with the virus.
“When everybody went into quarantine earlier in the year, some people live by themselves,” Martin said. “They didn’t want to risk going out and trying to find a witness.”
Another difference is that people submitting absentee ballots now have a tracking option. Just like an Amazon, Etsy or eBay package, ballots contain a special code, which shows voters where they are in real-time.
It’s a brand new option in Campbell County.
“Some registrar offices have been doing this for a while, but now all of us are required to do it,” Martin said. “This is our first time doing it.”
She noted the importance of the method, ensuring that people have peace of mind.
“I think because it gives the voter a chance to see the steps of where it’s at, so they feel secure that we’re actually receiving it,” Martin said.
If the postal service misplaces a ballot, the person tracking the package may investigate the issue. It’s a step in the right direction for those concerned about the legitimacy and accuracy of voting by mail.
A high voter turnout
It’s too early to tell just how many people will request absentee ballots before the October 23 deadline, but it’s already a popular option in Rustburg.
“I don’t know how many have been returned yet,” Martin said. “I can say that the last presidential [election] for absentee, which includes mail-out and in-person absentee, we did about 2,061.”
As soon as the Campbell County registrar’s office offered the absentee voting option, they immediately received requests for ballots.
“The first day, we mailed out just under 3,000,” Martin said. “We have been averaging about 100, 150 people a day in here. That’s a whole lot more than usual.”
As the election draws closer and more debates occur, the number of absentee voters will likely climb. For those interested in requesting an absentee ballot, they may visit their local registrar or fill out a form online at the Virginia Department of Elections Citizen Portal.
Amie Knowles reports for The Dogwood. She can be reached at [email protected]