General Assembly changed the law to allow cities and counties to set up 24-hour accessible sites.
ARLINGTON – Those walking by the local registrar’s office likely noticed a new feature outside of the building this year. It’s a drop-off box, designed similarly to a postal service public mailbox. However, these aren’t where folks drop letters to grandma. They’re where some people vote.
The Virginia General Assembly changed a lot of things during the special session this fall. They eliminated ‘no knock’ warrants and stopped the 224-year-old jury sentencing practice. They also reworked some of the election laws, allowing cities and counties to set up drop-off boxes for absentee ballots this year only.
The new law says each local registrar will establish a drop-off location at their office. They’re also required to put a drop-off box at each polling place on Election Day. If the registrar feels more drop-off sites are needed, they will be allowed to set up as many as necessary.
In Arlington, drop boxes for absentee ballots popped up across the area last week. There are currently nine 24/7 drop boxes and seven supersized drop locations.
Gretchen Reinemeyer, director of elections at the Arlington Registrar’s Office, noted that this is a brand new voting method in Virginia.
“Drops boxes are definitely new this year. They are actually only allowed for this election, under current law,” Reinemeyer said.
However, the idea’s been around for years in select other states.
“Drop boxes are used across the country, especially in vote by mail states,” Reinemeyer said. “They are a feature of elections.”
COVID changes things
This year, the pandemic played a large role in bringing innovative voting methods to the Commonwealth. Before, Virginians could vote absentee, but only if they proved they wouldn’t be in town for Election Day.
This year, Virginia adopted a no-excuse absentee voting practice, which eliminated the need for proof that voters couldn’t vote in-person on Election Day. The decision opened up access and more than one million people have taken advantage so far.
Furthering voter access, the General Assembly allowed drop boxes throughout the state.
“What we’ve seen and the reason I think the General Assembly felt the need to allow them for this elections is because of the pandemic. We’ve seen, across the Commonwealth, a dramatic increase in requests for absentee ballots from voters,” Reinemeyer said. “We wanted to expand our options for getting votes back to us during this election. This is to accommodate the dramatic increase of over 300% over the last presidential election.”
A useful method
Since their implementation in Arlington last week, Reinemeyer expressed that several individuals used the new method, but the boxes weren’t overflowing. She noted that she’s not sure how many ballots a single drop box can hold because none of the nine 24-hour boxes have reached anywhere close to their capacity.
Reinemeyer explained that there are two options for drop box users in Virginia. One’s outdoors, while the other is indoors.
“There are two different types of drop boxes that you’ll see kind of throughout Virginia. So we have, basically, 24-hour drop boxes. These are outside facilities, bolted to the ground and they have a surveillance system on them. Any locality in Virginia that has a drop box outside is being monitored by video surveillance,” Reinemeyer said. “If voters want to give their ballot to a person, they can always go inside every early voting location, every registrar’s office and actually every polling location on Election Day will also have a drop box that is inside being monitored by a person.”
Fortunately, there’s no evidence suggesting malice at any of the Arlington drop box locations.
“Our drop boxes have only been up for a little over a week. We have not had any instances of them being tampered with,” Reinemeyer said. “Like I said, we do have video cameras on them. Both our office has access to them, as well as the police department, so we are keeping an eye on them.”
Unfortunately, the entire Commonwealth hasn’t been as lucky.
“We did see this, actually, down in the Richmond area,” Reinemeyer said. “There were some mail boxes that were tampered with.”
She’s referring to an incident at the beginning of this month in Richmond. Six post offices reported that someone tampered with local mailboxes. That investigation is still ongoing and it’s unknown if any ballots were stolen.
Should a similar circumstance occur in Arlington, Reinemeyer’s team already has a plan in place.
“If we had either a mail box or a drop box that was tampered with, we would put out a notice advising voters who used that drop box and the hours from the last time we picked it up,” Reinemeyer said. “Since we do pick it up daily, it would only be less than a 24-hour period. So we would notify that any voter that had put their ballot in this drop box at this time and date should contact our office.”
Making the vote count
Just like in-person voting, those voting by drop box have only a few weeks left to complete and return their ballot. It ends on November 3, just like the traditional method.
“It might change with the state board meeting this week, but as of now, these drop boxes will be locked at 7 p.m. Election Night,” Reinemeyer said. “So if you want to use a drop box, you’ve got to get to us by 7 p.m. Election Night.”
Those seeking information about drop box locations or hours may find the information on the web or by calling their local registrar’s office.
“We do have our drop box FAQs on our website because we know this is new and we know voters have a lot of questions,” Reinemeyer said.
Amie Knowles reports for The Dogwood. She can be reached at [email protected]