Local registrar offices brace for no-excuse voting law's effects

Staff writer

While it will be more convenient for Virginians to cast votes in the November 2020 elections thanks to a new no-excuse voting law, local elections officials say it will be a logistical challenge to carry out the state mandate.

It’s all thanks to Senate Bill 1026. That legislation, and its twin House Bill 2790, allows citizens to cast an absentee ballot in-person beginning on the second Saturday immediately prior to the election without filling out an application or declaring a reason for doing so.

Typically, in order to vote absentee, a voter must fill out an application and declare a reason, such as being away at college, pregnancy or serving in the armed services.

The new law maintains the existing rules governing absentee voting by mail or in-person before the second Saturday immediately before an election, such as the requirement for an application and the list of reasons for absentee voting.

The legislation also creates a 45-day period before Election Day in which in-person absentee voters who fill out the regular application can vote until the Saturday immediately before an election.

The legislation passed comfortably in both chambers and was signed into law by Gov. Ralph Northam in late March. It goes into effect in time for the 2020 general elections in November.

And though that’s a little ways off, the time is now to start thinking about the logistical hurdles that likely will accompany the new policy, said James City County Director of Elections Dianna Moorman.

“There are major changes coming,” Moorman said. “If we don’t do something about this, we’ll be in the newspaper and not for good reasons.”

Moorman expects the new policy will result in a deluge of early voters in the run up to Election Day, especially given that the inaugural date for the new law includes a presidential election — far too many for the county’s elections department to properly service at its current facility on Palmer Lane.

Security and staffing issues make operating out of a large temporary space such as a school gym out of the question. So while the county department moved into its current home in 2016, it’s likely it will have to move again to a larger building.

“I don’t see how we can do no-excuse absentee voting without a new office,” she said.

Moorman said a new office ideally would be something similar to an empty storefront with a lot of parking — something on the order of a vacant Walmart.

The state didn’t provide funding for the mandate, so Moorman, as well as her colleagues across the state, will have to go looking for local funds to carry out the new policy.

At this time, there isn’t a cost estimate on what it will take to offer the no-excuse voting in James City County. Moorman expects to sit down with top-level county staff to discuss how to tackle the issue in the near future.

“We will be prepared. It’s just getting from point A to point B that’s difficult,” she said. “We’re in the beginning phase of a plan.”

York County plans to move its registrar’s office to Washington Square Shopping Center, as well as open a satellite office in the upper part of the county. Though plans to take these actions were underway prior to the passage of the no-excuse voting law, they come at a good time.

“I believe that these additional locations will help a great deal in making sure we are able to accommodate early voting,” York County voter registrar Walt Latham said in an email.

While it’s unknown exactly how many people will come looking to cast a vote in the run-up to the election, it’s likely the current space in Yorktown is insufficient.

“It is my sense of things that many registrars’ offices are small even for the legal requirements that we have now, let alone for early voting,” Latham said.

Latham pointed to North Carolina’s 2016 presidential election experience as a hint of what no-excuse voting might look like. Upwards of 60% of total votes cast in the 2016 presidential election were cast in-person before Election Day, Latham said.

In York County, that would be as if a little more than 20,000 voters in the cast in-person ballots early in 2016, rather than the 1,000 to 2,000 voters who voted in-person absentee that year.

“As you can imagine, that’s an enormous increase," he said.

With the additional space slated for his department, Latham seemed confident the county will be in a good position to address the demand. He didn’t know exactly what the price tag would look like to handle no-excuse voting, but expects to coordinate with other county officials to figure that out in the coming months.

For the November 2020 election, the first day of early voting without an excuse will be Oct. 24. The election is Nov. 3.

Williamsburg voter registrar Win Sowder did not respond to requests for comment.

Jack Jacobs, 757-298-6007, jojacobs@vagazette.com, @jajacobs_

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