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Northam Proposes Ballot Drop Boxes As Election Day Nears

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Registrars are predicting a record amount of mail-in ballots as voters steer clear of precincts during the pandemic. (Yasmine Jumaa/VPM News)

Mail-in ballot boxes could soon be coming to cities and counties across Virginia under a budget proposal from Gov. Ralph Northam announced less than three months ahead of election day.

The change would help clarify a gap in state code that has left local election officials uncertain on whether the boxes are allowed.

In a briefing with lawmakers on Tuesday, Northam also proposed putting $2 million toward pre-paid postage for return ballots and allowing absentee voters to correct mistakes on ballots they send in. 

Northam’s plans come as President Trump’s new postmaster institutes changes at the U.S. Postal Service that Democrats and voting rights groups worry will delay election mail. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy announced he was suspending those changes on Tuesday.

The proposals won praise by voting rights groups but inspired a more mixed reaction among some local election officials. They expressed concerns about having enough time and resources to implement the changes ahead of September 19, when absentee voting begins.

Northam stressed the urgency in quickly passing the budget in the Democratic-controlled General Assembly an address to lawmakers on Tuesday.

“For these reforms to matter in November, we must make them now,” Northam said. “I ask you to move quickly to pass this budget, because the stakes are high for our country.”

At least 30 states allow voters to deposit ballots in tamper-proof boxes, according to Deb Wake, president of the League of Women Voters of Virginia. She said in a statement that the changes “will preserve public health and safety.” 

Some localities in Virginia have already experimented with the ballot drop-off sites. Falls Church registrar David Bjerke said they decided to allow ballots in a dropbox in front of city hall during the Republican Senate primary in June after noticing that Fairfax County had taken a similar step.

“We went ahead and put a sign that people could put their ballots in there,” Bjerke said. “Now that it's become a controversial topic, we are hesitant to do that again until we seek guidance.” 

Bjerke and Robin Lind, a Goochland County Electoral Board, both said they hadn’t gotten clear instructions on the issue from the Department of Elections. Lind recalled a recent call with the department where an official sidestepped questions about whether the boxes were allowed. In response to a similar question from VPM, a spokesperson for the department reiterated that state law doesn’t specify whether the boxes are allowed.

“The lack of guidance has just been grotesque,” Lind said.

Bjerke also expressed concerns about staffing and resources his office would need to use prepaid postage ahead of the start of absentee voting, which begins September 19. 

“I understand why they're doing it,” Bjerke said. “It's just -- it's very, very late in the process, when many jurisdictions already have their envelope packages already made up, and are just awaiting a ballot to be certified and printed.”

Bjerke said he had already received requests for around 2,200 ballots, dwarfing the 18 he sent out in mid-September of 2016.

Registrars and localities are also facing political pressure to increase hours and open satellite voting locations. In a letter on Tuesday, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) urged the state's registrars to help address concerns related to voting either in person or by mail.

“We urge you to do everything in your power to ensure that both of these important safeguards of the American franchise can be fully exercised, including by working with your local governance body to expand the number of satellite sites where in-person absentee voting is available and the number of business hours during which those sites are open,” the letter says.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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