How To Lessen the November 3 Polling Train Wreck

By Steve Haner

If the state and the major political parties do not spend substantial time educating voters about how voting rules have changed, and what has not changed, the lines and delays on November 3 will be incredible.  This voter education must start now. The Northam Administration is not known for effective communication, sadly.

The Virginia Public Access Project has posted a useful illustrated “how to” on voting absentee by mail, pointing to some things which have changed. But even it glosses over something key that has not changed: To apply on-line for an absentee ballot by mail, you still need to provide formal identification.

The first request in the on-line application is for your Virginia driver’s license number. Lacking that, it seeks some other numbered state-issued identification. You must also provide your Social Security number. Requesting and actually checking the voter’s data provides some assurance ballots will be mailed to real persons at their actual addresses.

The additional safety procedure of requiring the signature of a witness to that ballot, however, is under assault in the courts again. It was waived in June and the pandemic is still with us. Waiving it again simply feeds the claims that the process cannot be trusted. 

Here’s the big change: In effect, Virginia now allows mail or in-person early voting 45 days before November 3. Officially you are casting an absentee ballot, but now there is no need to state a reason for voting early. Anybody can vote absentee, by mail or by visiting their registrar. By my count on the calendar that starts Saturday, September 19.

The state should start publicizing that opportunity now. The more who take advantage of in-person absentee voting, or who get a mail ballot, the shorter the lines will be on Election Day. Voting in person at the registrar is just as secure as voting in the poll on Election Day. Will the COVID-shy offices be open?

For that in-person early process you still need to provide identification. Only the “photo” portion of the ID requirement is now gone, meaning you can use a utility bill with your name and address or your voter registration card. The same expanded list of identification forms also applies on Election Day, but something tangible from that list is still required. This needs to be stressed.

The voter ID process is likely to be the big time killer and line builder on November 3. In the past, some localities used optical readers that took the information from the driver’s license bar code, creating a smooth, quick, and reliable check in.  Starting with the June primary, whatever ID the voter presented was simply placed on the table for the poll worker to examine.  We were told not to touch the driver’s license or other ID.  Check in got slower.

Lacking any acceptable ID, voters will need to sign an affidavit affirming their identity. In prior elections, such voters needed to vote provisionally and then bring their ID to the registrar’s office later, which often didn’t happen. Now they sign an oath and it counts. It is still additional bureaucratic paperwork which will be building the backlog in line.

To be counted in the past, mailed absentee ballots needed to be received by the registrars on or before 7 p.m. on Election Day  Now they may arrive as late as noon on Friday after the election, an additional 65 hours. They are supposed to be postmarked by Election Day, but a missing or illegible postmark no longer disqualifies a mail ballot, the Board of Elections has recently decided. That change also gives ammo to the mail ballot cynics.

The 2020 General Assembly also gave approval to some other ideas, which are not going into effect with this election. One bill, which needs to be ratified again by the 2021 session, will move the poll closing hour to 8 p.m., meaning the poll workers’ day will run from 5 am (or earlier) to 9 or 10 p.m. (or later).

Another, not in effect until 2022, will allow Election Day registration, either at the registrars’ offices or in the actual precinct. Three or four such people during the day won’t be an issue, but it is easy to imagine activists for either party rounding up carloads of such people and bringing them in all at once.

A third, passed but delayed until 2021, will bring ranked-choice voting to Virginia.  after the collapse of the Iowa Democratic Party caucuses under a ranked choice voting system, Virginia legislators authorized it in Virginia on a trial basis. Presumably, those same abused poll workers will be doing those extra counts to call into the registrar, 16 or more hours after they arrived that morning.

Add more time to their killer day, and one more way for human error to enter.

I don’t care whether process changes favor one party or the other. I care whether they will speed or slow the lines during a major turnout election. Those final three bills in combination are the best reason in the world to not become an election officer in Virginia, and to reconsider if you already are one.