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Protecting Election 2020 from Covid-19: A Toolkit for Virginia Activists

If the Covid-19 pandemic continues into November, we will need to change our election practices to make sure voters don’t have to choose between their health and their right to vote. We have the solutions to make our elections both safe and accessible to all. And with this toolkit, you will know what reforms your state needs and where to focus your efforts.

Last Updated: October 14, 2020
Published: August 25, 2020

This is part of the Brennan Center’s Toolkits for Activists Across the Nation.

Jump to a section: 
Political Context  |  What's in Place and What’s Needed  |  Key Dates

Administering an election under pandemic conditions requires undertaking steps to keep voting accessible, safe, and secure. The guide below lays out the problems Covid-19 poses, what preparedness measures Virginia has, and what changes are still needed. But first, we offer some political context for your advocacy.


Advocacy Focus: Local Reform

Local officials have a lot of responsibility over elections. They are a great place to focus advocacy efforts. Though state officials can make any of the changes in this toolkit, we highlight some examples of changes that local elections officials can also make with this symbol:🔸


Political Context

Below is a list of the relevant officials and information about the legislative session.

Governor: Ralph Northam (D)  

Department of Elections Commissioner: Chris Piper

State Board of Elections Chair: Robert Brink (D)

Legislature: House (D) Senate (D)

Legislative Session: Regular session adjourned April 22, 2020; Special session convened on August 18, 2020. Either the legislature or the governor can call a special legislative session.

Local Elections Officials: In Virginia, a number of local officials share responsibilities for administering elections. You can look up individual local officials here.

What Virginia Has and What’s Needed

Three priorities. There are three key areas where we need to shore up our elections systems for success during a pandemic: registration, mail voting, and in-person voting.

Registration

Covid-19 may disrupt the traditional ways Americans register to vote, like get out the vote drives or registering at government agencies. In the crucial weeks before the registration deadline, postal service disruptions may lead many registration forms to arrive at election offices after the deadline.

Preparatory Measures Virginia Already Has Taken:

  • Online voter registration
  • Extended mail and online voter registration deadlines based on conditions in the state

Changes Still Needed:

  • Voter registration on Election Day

Voting by Mail

Because of Covid-19, long lines and crowds at the polls pose health risks not seen in previous elections. Allowing every citizen to vote by mail reduces the number of people at the polls on Election Day and decreases the exposure risk to Covid-19.

Preparatory Measures Virginia Already Has Taken:

  • All voters can vote by mail without an excuse
  • Online tool for requesting an absentee ballot
  • No ID requirement to vote by mail
  • No witness requirement for return of mail ballot for any election occurring on November 3, 2020, pursuant to consent decree
  • Accepts late-arriving ballots postmarked by Election Day
  • Provides pre-paid postage for voting by mail
  • Provides post-election notice and cure opportunity for defects on absentee-ballot envelope, including missing signatures

Changes Still Needed: 

  • Send absentee-ballot applications to all voters who have not yet applied

In-Person Voting

Even with expanded mail voting opportunity, states cannot close polling places. To do so may disenfranchise voters without Internet and mail access, or those who do not wish to cast a ballot by mail. In-person voting must be done in accordance with health guidelines to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Preparatory Measures Virginia Already Has Taken:

  • In-person early voting

Changes Still Needed:

  • Ensure sufficient polling places are open and resourced on Election Day🔸
  • Open more in-person early voting locations🔸
  • Take proper public health precautions to ensure safe polling places🔸
  • Hold training sessions for polling-place workers well in advance of Election Day, so that election officials can better anticipate problems with staffing and logistics🔸
  • Increase access to curbside voting at polling locations

Advocacy Focus: Protecting Polling Places

No matter how prepared Virginia is as a matter of policy, elections officials and advocates must stay vigilant about ensuring safe, healthy in-person voting is an option for everyone all the way through Election Day. Here are some important things to know about who makes decisions about polling places in Virginia and what rules govern the process:

  • The governing body of each locality is required to provide funds to enable the general registrar to provide adequate facilities at each polling place for the conduct of elections.🔸
  • State law generally prohibits changing voting places within 60 days of an election.🔸
  • If an emergency makes a polling place unusable or inaccessible, the electoral board or the general registrar is required to provide an alternative polling place and give notice of the change.🔸

Key Dates for Virginia Elections

  • May 26, 2020: Deadline to register to vote for the Primary Election
  • June 23, 2020: Primary Election Day
  • September 19, 2020: First day of early voting for the General Election
  • October 15, 2020: Deadline to register to vote for the General Election
  • October 23, 2020 (5:00 p.m.): Deadline to apply via online, fax, or mail for an absentee ballot for the General Election
  • October 31, 2020: Last day of early voting for the General Election
  • October 31, 2020 (5:00 p.m.): Deadline to apply in person for an absentee ballot for the General Election
  • November 3, 2020: General Election Day