Northam delays upcoming elections; others push for November alternatives

By Joseph Whitney Smith, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va -- Gov. Ralph Northam announced Wednesday that he is delaying the June congressional primaries by two weeks and is calling on the General Assembly to approve moving May elections to November.

“We have wrestled with our options and none of them are ideal or perfect,” Northam said. “Voting is a fundamental right, but no one should have to choose between protecting their health or casting a ballot.”

State legislators will have to sign off on the governor’s proposal to move the May local and special elections. Northam proposed that these races appear on the November ballot. All absentee ballots already cast would be discarded, the governor said. Additionally, those officials whose terms expire as of June 30 will continue in office until their successors have been elected in November.

The primary for Congressional races and a few local races has been postponed to June 23.

“As other states have shown, conducting an election in the middle of this global pandemic would bring unprecedented challenges and potential risk to voters and those who work at polling places across the Commonwealth,” Northam said.

Groups and state leaders have been calling for proactive measures such as mail-in voting for the upcoming Nov. 3 presidential election, fearing ongoing impact from the coronavirus pandemic. Virginia Democrats recently joined other Democratic groups nationwide calling on federal lawmakers to create voting alternatives for the presidential election due to the coronavirus outbreak. 

The groups are asking for provisions such as free or prepaid postage, allowing ballots postmarked by election day to count, in addition to extending early voting periods for in-person voting. Two possible alternatives to replace voting in person are mail-in and absentee ballots, according to Stephen Farnsworth, a professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg that specializes in media and elections.

Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, supports the idea of a universal mail-in ballot, regardless of the current pandemic. An MIT research study found that universal vote by mail cuts costs, increases turnout and improves election reliability. However, the success of these programs depends on transparency, accuracy and accessibility. Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah have introduced mail-in only ballots.

“We need to take up this essential task of giving all Virginians an opportunity to participate in a safe and inclusive election,” Carroll Foy said in an email.The delegate recently filed paperwork to run for governor in 2021, according to the Virginia Mercury. 

Carroll Foy said the mail-in method is preferable to absentee voting because individuals need to opt in to register for absentee voting. Mail-in voting allows any registered voter to mail in their ballot without opting in, Carroll-Foy said. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, states using the mail-in method mail ballots to every registered voter, while absentee ballots are first requested and voters must qualify to receive the ballot. 

“We want to make sure that everyone feels safe and secure in these uncertain times, and that their constitutional rights are protected and easily accessed -- mail in ballots are the best to achieve both,” Carroll Foy said. 

Farnsworth believes it’s unlikely that the November U.S. presidential election will be delayed, but said voters may see changes at the polls.

“Even for states that don't make the switch away from largely in-person voting, you can expect much greater opportunities for no-excuse-required early and absentee voting,” Farnsworth said. 

During the General Assembly 2020 session, legislators passed House Bill 1 to allow a no excuse requirement to vote absentee. This removes prior requirements such as work, illness or travel to justify requesting an absentee ballot. 

Farnsworth said a mail-in only option is the most likely alternative over traditional in-person voting if the nation is still on lockdown in November. 

According to Anna Scholl, executive director of advocacy group Progress Virginia, postponing elections is the right move for Virginia voters.

“Postponing elections is a serious decision but it is the right move for our communities,” Scholl stated in a news release. “We strongly encourage the General Assembly to ratify this plan when they meet on April 22nd.”

The deadline to have an absentee ballot mailed for the June primary is June 2. Absentee ballot request forms can be found at www.vote.virginia.gov.