A garbage bag partially covers the sign denoting the former registrar's office in Chatham. Early Voting Starts in Pittsylvania
A garbage bag partially covers the sign denoting the former registrar's office in Chatham.

Early voting is going on at a new location in Pittsylvania County. Due to COVID-19, the registrar’s office moved to a new location. 

CHATHAM – If you’re driving down South Main Street in Chatham, you might’ve noticed a black garbage bag covering the hillside sign denoting the Pittsylvania County Registrar’s Office. 

No, it wasn’t an act of vandalism. The office switched locations this year, moving 0.4 miles up the road, near the corner of Main Street and Depot Street, near the State Route 57 intersection. 

Last November, registered voters flocked to the old Chatham Library, built in 1939. They weren’t there to read a book. They arrived to submit a ballot for the presidential election. 

So why did they go to the defunct library to perform their patriotic right? Because about 15 years ago, the small brick building became the home of the Pittsylvania County Registrar’s Office. 

The staff made the.building work for their needs for years. However, the COVID-19 pandemic made the issues brought forth by the small space more noticeable.

It was time for a change.

Pittsylvania Adjusts to Pandemic’s Difficulties

When Virginia switched to a no-excuse absentee ballot method in light of the pandemic, Pittsylvania County General Registrar Kelly Keesee anticipated a rise in early voter turnout. 

She also expressed that maintaining six feet of social distancing for a crowd was not particularly feasible in the former library.

A compounding issue also plagued the site. Not only did the office serve as a polling location for Chatham residents, 2019 population 1,401. The small building in the county seat traditionally also served as the early voting location for all of Pittsylvania County. That’s the largest land-area county in the state, housing 60,354 people in 2019. Approximately 45,600 county reisdents registered as voters in 2020.

Instead of people lining up out into Chatham’s Main Street waiting for their early voting opportunity, the county sourced a separate building just outside of town.

“Part of the reason we used the satellite location last year was because we didn’t have the capacity to hold folks for voting with social distancing and that sort of thing,” Keesee said.

The Olde Dominion Agricultural Complex – home to events like rodeos, tractor pulls and a community Halloween trunk-or-treat extravaganza – took on a new role. Utilizing the 8,000 sq. ft. conference center, Pittsylvania County moved its early voting location, offering voters open spaces, single-use pens and temperature checks.

Elections officials also made curbside voting easily accessible for those with illnesses, handicaps and voters age 65 and older. Furthermore, an absentee vote drop-off box remained under surveillance at the agricultural complex. 

The satellite location also provided ample parking, an issue for townsfolk who waited to vote in-person on Election Day. Some drivers parked their car on the side of South Main Street on November 3, 2020, and walked up the slope toward the former library to cast their ballot. 

A Big Move

The makeshift site remained open through the end of the voting day on the Saturday before the election. However, the facility served as a bandaid in the pandemic. It did not permanently solve the issue for overcrowding concerns at the old location, should COVID-19 still be an issue the following election season.

Lo and behold, it’s still an issue. However, the need for a separate voting facility is not. That’s because Keesee moved her office into a new location a few weeks ago – one better suited to serve the community.

The newly renovated space at 18 Depot St now serves as the Pittsylvania County Elections and Training Center. The building sits across the street from the recently renovated Piedmont Access To Health Services (PATHS) Community Medical Center.

The less-than-half-mile move made a big change in the office’s operations.

“The major issue, or the major reason, why we moved from that facility to this facility was due to the lack of space for our primary function,” Keesee said. 

Everything from voting equipment to election-based trainings occurred off-site of the former location. The new facility houses everything under one roof. 

“We have a dedicated early voting space. We have a dedicated training and meeting center,” Keesee said. “I would say those are probably our two largest increases because those were nonexistent at the old facility.”

The move also positively impacted the community. 

“So now that we have a larger facility, it directly plays into the ability to serve more people because we now have quadrupled the amount of space that we had before we moved,” Keesee said.

It Takes Some “Getting Used To

In addition to the black garbage bag obscuring the sign of the former Pittsylvania County Registrar’s Office, the registrar also took additional measures to get word of the move to those it impacted.

Pittsylvania County updated its government website to not only reflect the change, but also bring attention to it. In large, dark blue letters, the site reads, “We have Moved!” Impacted residents also received a letter in the mail announcing the change.

“I think it’s taken some getting used to. Even though we’ve posted notices and even though we’ve notified the folks of the change, especially those that received the polling place location change, I don’t think folks are realizing that we have moved. We’ve gotten a lot of folks that have gone to the old location to realize that we have moved,” Keesee said. “So I think it’s just going to be a matter of time until folks realize that we’re no longer at the old facility.”

Keesee has a plan in place for any voters who might arrive at the wrong location on June 8. 

“We will be placing signs at the old location. That will be staffed by the county staff,” Keesee said. “If anybody was to show up, they’ll be directing them back to here.” 

Holding Elections

Just because the registrar’s office changed locations does not mean that the number of polling places in town condensed. There are still two precincts – the new Pittsylvania County Elections and Training Center and Chatham Elementary School, located 1.5 miles apart. 

Come Election Day, both locations will welcome voters. 

“The reason being is those two, even though they are both within the Town of Chatham, they are for two different election districts locally,” Keesee said. “The Chatham location that was previously at our old location is for the Chatham-Blairs Board of Supervisors district. And then Chatham Elementary School is for the Banister Board of Supervisors district. So they are separate and will continue to stay that way.” 

This isn’t just an issue in Pittsylvania County. Across the Commonwealth, cities and counties have relocated their voting sites, due to the pandemic. If you need help finding yours, the Department of Elections can help you out here.

Amie Knowles reports for the Dogwood. You can reach her at amie@couriernewsroom.com