With Early Voting Underway in Virginia, Election 2020 Brings More Planning and More Cost

Sep 18, 2020

Virginians can now vote in the 2020 General Election.

Absentee ballots are being sent out and voters can vote in person at their electoral office.  Early voting is getting much more attention this cycle due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Christopher Piper is the Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Elections, and he makes an unconventional comparison to explain how Virginians can vote in this election.   "The best way to describe it is like Burger King," Piper says.  "You can have it your way."

A line stretching the equivalent of two football fields forms as hundreds wait in line for early voting at Fairfax County Government Center, Friday in Fairfax.
Credit AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Voters can request an absentee ballot by mail or online. They vote absentee in person at their voter registration office, and of course, they can do it the old-fashioned way too, in-person, on Election Day. Virginia has made some recent changes to the voting process, mostly to increase access. First, voters do not need an excuse to vote absentee. Second, voters do not need a witness to vote absentee, as they have in the past. Third, voters don’t need a photo ID. They can use a utility bill, for example. And lastly, voters have the option of fixing a rejected absentee ballot.

Jim Heilman, of the Albemarle County Electoral Board, calls it “curing.”  "We're going to get in contact with those voters and give them the opportunity to fix the mistake that they made. Most people get it right, but because so many people are new to the mail process we know that some will get that wrong."

Piper says these steps are to reassure voters. "We built in a lot of the steps along the way to ensure that you have confidence that your vote is going to count."

Even before the pandemic, voters were concerned about an accurate count in the election. When the Associated press polled Americans in February, only a third said they had high confidence it would be an accurate count. In 2016 Russian hackers scanned Virginia’s voting systems for weaknesses, but officials aren’t aware of any breaches. Piper says that they’ve been shoring up election security.   "Taken a lot of steps to shore up our security infrastructure to include multifactor authentication. We've done other things within the system itself to protect against any sort of breaches," according to Piper. "We feel very strongly about the security posture that we've put ourselves in."

While the State Board of Elections has worked to make sure that increased early-voting doesn’t mean delayed results, Piper says that voters should be prepared for clear winners to be announced after election night.   "We should all be getting used to election week, not election night," Piper predicts. "And I say that meaning that with the increased use of ballot through the mail, those just take longer to process. But in Virginia, we can process ballots throughout the 45 day period as they're coming in."

Click here for more information from the Virginia Department of Elections

Virginia’s public-facing Election website has crashed on election night, most recently during last year’s state elections. With COVID and memories of foreign interference, it might be easy to assign a repeat issue to something beyond a technology problem. Piper says that they’ve looked into the website’s issues to avoid that.

All of this means that this election has taken extra planning, extra steps, and it means extra cost. When asked if he expected a more costly election, Heilman sounds confident.  "Oh my, yes, we do. Now it is going to be a very costly election."

In addition to personal protective equipment for poll workers, Albemarle County is going to install sneeze guards in polling places, and there are other expenses.  "Particularly overtime for our staff," Heilman says. "And the cost of printing all these envelopes, the cost of the ballots themselves. That adds up. The cost of it is going to be bigger than any election we've ever had."

Piper has some advice for voters planning to vote absentee. The moral of this story is anybody who wishes to vote absentee-- do it early."

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.