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Guest Host: Sasha-Ann Simons
Many Virginia residents received a mailer from a third-party nonprofit based in D.C. The mailer, distributed by the Center for Voter Information, gave false details on how to apply for an absentee ballot and were printed with the wrong return addresses for ballot applications. Though the organization has promised to rectify the wrong, their misstep has restored conversations about potential issues with Virginia’s upcoming general election.
This year, Virginia has taken enormous strides to expand its voting rights, like enabling automatic voter registration, expanding early voting dates and making Election day a holiday. However, the Commonwealth’s Department of Elections is currently under a lawsuit with the state’s ACLU and the League of Women Voters due to a Virginia law requiring a witness’s signature for any voter submitting an absentee ballot. The plaintiffs say that this provision can disenfranchise immunocompromised voters and are asking the court to block the state from enforcing this requirement.
So, what will Virginia’s elections look like in November?
Produced by Richard Cunningham
- Claire Guthrie Gastanaga Executive Director, Virginia's American Civil Liberties Union
- Jessica Bowman Chief Deputy Commissioner, Virginia's Department of Elections
SASHA-ANN SIMONSYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show. I'm Sasha-Ann Simons sitting in for Kojo. Welcome. Later in the hour we talk with Washington Mystics Forward Myisha Hines-Allen on today's Kojo for Kids. But first recently an independent organization sent hundreds of thousands of Virginians absentee ballot applications for November's election.
SASHA-ANN SIMONSBut in some jurisdictions the applications had the wrong return address. This mishap has reignited debate about whether large scale voting by mail feasible and about planning elections amid a pandemic. As questions about absentee ballots, polling places and voter safety come to the forefront, will the region be ready for elections in November? Joining the conversation is Jessica Bowman. She's a Chief Deputy Commissioner of Virginia's Department of Elections. Hi, Jessica, thanks for joining us.
JESSICA BOWMANHello, thank you for having me.
SIMONSAnd Claire Gastanaga, she is the Executive Director of the ACLU of Virginia. Hi, Claire.
CLAIRE GUTHRIE GASTANAGAHi, thanks for inviting us to participate.
SIMONSJessica, I'm going to start with you. Paint a picture for us and tell us what November is going to look like here in Virginia. How will residents be voting in the general election?
BOWMANSure. I imagine Election Day in November will be a very busy day. However, Election Day for us really starts 45 days before Election Day. And this year voters will have one of three options on how they can cast their ballot. They can get a ballot mailed to them via absentee and they can apply for that on elections.virginia.gov. They can go in-person starting 45 days before Election Day and cast their ballot just as they would do on Election Day. And then of course on Election Day itself they can go to the polls that are open 6:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. to cast their ballot.
SIMONSNow, Claire, as we mentioned thousands of Virginia voters received a mailer from the Center for Voter Information. That's an independent organization. And it was encouraging them to request an absentee ballot for the general election, but some had inaccurate information. Tell us what happened there.
GASTANAGAI got one of those that suggested I should send an application back to Richmond County and I live in Richmond City.
GASTANAGASo, obviously the voter misinformation is quite problematic and the Board of Elections and the Department of Elections and everyone who's interested in fair elections is going to have to do a lot of work to educate voters that, you know, they can still apply and do the three things that Jessica talked about. They can still apply online for an absentee ballot. They can go and vote in-person absentee beginning September 18th. And they can vote on Election Day. The ACLU is very focused on both making it possible for people to vote by mail and for that reason we ended up suing the Department of Elections to try to get rid of the witness requirement on absentee ballots.
SIMONSAnd then we also believe that voters should have the choice to be able to vote in-person safely. And so we will be working on that as well. Also so in addition to the wrong address some applications were partially filled with voter's information and in some cases the information was wrong. Now, Jessica, some point to this mail mishap here as proof that absentee voting can lead to voter fraud. Do we know of any instances of voter fraud in the past from absentee voting, and does it actually pose a threat now?
BOWMANThank you for that question. You know, study after study has been done on absentee voting, voting by mail. And there is absolutely no proof that voter fraud increases or is rampant when absentee voting or voting by mail is increased. It is a process that has gone on since the Civil War and is just as safe as casting your ballot in-person.
SIMONSClaire, the ACLU of Virginia filed a lawsuit against the Virginia State Board of Elections about requiring a witness's signature to submit an absentee ballot. What's the status of that case?
GASTANAGAWell, it's pending a decision by the court. We're hopeful that we'll be able to -- we were able to come to an agreement to waive the witness signature requirement for the June primaries. And we're hopeful that's where we're going to end up with an agreed upon court order. But it's, you know, obviously we don't like to have to sue to get basic fundamental rights accorded to individuals. And this is a situation in which an old Jim Crow era vestige of the law, which requires a witness signature on an absentee ballot, should have been waived by the department.
GASTANAGAWe wrote them in April asking them to change the regulations and they choose not to do that. So we ended up having to sue, but hopefully we'll come to some kind of resolution shortly and get a court approved settlement in place.
SIMONSClaire, how do you respond to people who are worried about election fraud in November?
GASTANAGAI think it's specious. I think it's an argument that's meant to help suppress voting and it's a circumstance in situation in which as Jessica pointed out there's absolutely no factual predicate for believing that fraud increases with vote by mail or absentee balloting. Our military and our overseas state department employees and others have been voting remotely and by mail for a long time. And as Jessica points out this has been ongoing since the Civil War. And there's just no evidence that there's an increase in fraud as a result of what will be for the first time in Virginia an election in which you don't need an excuse to vote absentee. We finally stopped privileging some voters over others, and anyone can vote absentee now, which is a change in the law effective July 1.
SIMONSIf you're just tuning in, we're talking with Claire Gastanaga. She's the Executive Director of the ACLU of Virginia. Also with us is Jessica Bowman, the Chief Deputy Commissioner of Virginia's Department of Elections. Jessica, in April the Commonwealth removed the requirement for a reason to request an absentee ballot. Will that still be the case in November?
BOWMANAs Claire said, litigation is ongoing. That requirement was waived via a court order. So if another one is put in place, the department and local election officials will implement that just as we did in June. We will see.
SIMONSWhat effect do you think it would have on voter turnout?
BOWMANYou know, at the Department of Elections we never guess on voter turnout one way or the other. We leave that to pundits.
SIMONSNow jurisdictions everywhere are struggling to find poll workers. Most are older and there are concerns about COVID. So, Jessica, tell us what the situation is in Virginia. What's the plan to recruit people?
BOWMANSure. We also encountered this problem in May local elections and the June primary elections. The department has coordinated with the governor's office to do a recruitment campaign including state employees, including college students. And we saw a real, you know, call to come out and be of service during this time. And it went really well. So we are still ongoing in those recruitment efforts. I believe we have had around 3500 new volunteers sign up since May, which is very encouraging. And we continue to encourage people to volunteer to work the polls especially if you're younger.
SIMONSWe've got an email here from Sydney in D.C. and she asks, "Some people think vote by mail helps Democrats more than it does Republicans. Is that the case?" Your response, Jessica.
BOWMANI am not sure I can speak to causality of candidates winning campaigns. I will say, you know, in the June primary, which, you know, statewide was a Republican primary a lot of people chose to vote by mail. So I'm not sure it is a partisan process.
SIMONSClaire, can you weigh in on that one?
GASTANAGAYeah. I don't think it's partisan. And I think going back to the question of poll workers, one of the other good things that happened during our last legislative session is that Election Day is now a holiday for all public employees in Virginia. And hopefully that will also encourage people to volunteer. But I don't think that mail-in ballots is a partisan issue. I think the reality is that we in Virginia have gone now from being the second most difficult state to vote in in the country to being one of the states that has an easier time to vote. And we've gotten rid of a lot of the things that essentially gave some voters more rights than others. So I think mail-in ballots and the Election Day holiday is going to make a big difference in terms of leveling the playing field and making sure everybody has equal access to the ballot box.
SIMONSLisa emailed us and asked on the topic of poll workers, "What should I do if I want to volunteer to be a poll worker?" Jessica.
BOWMANSure. So you can go to our website elections.virginia.gov and sign up there. You can also contact your local registrar's office.
SIMONSMarilee is now on the line. She's from Reston, Virginia. Marilee, you're on the air.
MARILEEHi. I voted in the Democratic primary that happened recently and as part of the information I received, the written information said I would be able to go online to electionsvirginia.gov and discover, you know, if my ballot had been received. However, when I went to the website there was no way to track whether or not my ballot had been received. Has this been a problem?
SIMONSThanks for your question, Marilee. Jessica, can you address that?
BOWMANSure. So if you go on our website and log into our citizen portal you should be able to see if your ballot was received by the general registrar. Also the State Board of Elections just passed a regulation last week that -- for absentee ballots in November, voters will be able to track their ballots through an intelligent mail barcode. So similar to what you would track your Amazon packages, you'll be able to type in your name, where you got your ballot mailed to and it will tell you when it's on your way. And it then it will tell you when it's gotten back to the registrar's office. So we're really excited about that extra step of transparency for our voters.
SIMONSDo you know how many in-person voting centers will be open across the state compared to a normal year?
BOWMANI do not. Settling voting locations I think will be busier than usual due to the new legislation that you can vote early in-person without an excuse. Localities are still establishing those. Right now those need to be established by the governing body, by ordinance. And so I think that is still ongoing from a couple of localities such as Fairfax and Prince William. I know they have increased their locations.
SIMONSWell, let's put a pause on that. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. Stay tuned.
SIMONSWelcome back. I'm Sasha-Ann Simons in for Kojo Nnamdi. We're talking with Jessica Bowman, the Chief Deputy Commissioner of Virginia's Department of Elections and Claire Gastanaga. She's the Executive Director of the ACLU of Virginia. We're talking about Virginia's November election plans. Claire, tell us what is top of mind for voters. What are you hearing from them about this election?
GASTANAGAWell, I think they're concerned about being sure that their votes are going to be counted. And I wanted to go back to something Jessica was talking about in terms of polling locations. When she talks about satellite locations that's for the period between September 18th and Election Day where registrars make available locations outside the registrar's office where you can cast an in-person absentee ballot. We're going to be watching at the ACLU very closely to make sure that those satellite centers are distributed equally and equally accessible to voters across the spectrum and not just put in some locations in some neighborhoods.
GASTANAGAAnd then the second thing is on Election Day, I think people are concerned about safety. And we're going to be really focused on making sure that there are plans to keep people safe in polling places. And we're also a little concerned about maybe last minute changes and precinct locations, because of concerns about having polling locations in schools or in residential care facilities. So there is lots to keep an eye on.
GASTANAGAWe encourage every voter to look carefully at the question, should they vote by mail? Should they vote early at a satellite center? Or do they want to cast their ballot on Election Day? They should be able to make the choice and do so safely and convenient and fairly with true accessibility for all voters regardless of race or socio economic status or neighborhood location.
SIMONSLet's take a call here. We've got Les on the line from Virginia. Hi, Les.
LESGood morning. How are you doing today?
SIMONSGood. Thanks. What's your question or comment today?
LESThe comment is looking at the big picture from 30,000 feet down, we're facing a calamity in November nationwide, and certainly in Virginia as well. I'm Managing Director of the Mandate Democracy Foundation. We're a 501C3 at George Mason University. We're developing what is going to be the next paradigm, an inevitable paradigm to move away from both in-person and mail-in ballot voting to online cyber secure universal access voting. Chris Piper, they've been very polite to meet with us. And they realize they have a calamity facing them. Not for purposes of fraud. That's a red herring.
LESIt's the unknowable errors that accumulate in ballot distribution, return, authentication, all of which can and will be solved probably not this year. We're only doing pilot tests this year. But it is the inevitable future of voting.
SIMONSWell, let me get a response to your question there, Les. Jessica, is the system prepared for an influx of mail-in ballots for the general election?
BOWMANIt's a great question. We have been working hard along with local and general registrars to do, you know, all that we can to prepare for the influx of mail. I think we will be as ready as we possibly can be. The other thing is, you know, election night results will not necessarily be as final as they haven't been in the past. Mainly because of a new law, which is great for voters that was passed this year where absentee ballots, if they are postmarked on or before Election Day will be counted up until noon on Friday. So absentee ballots that were put in the mail Monday, if they get to the registrar's office by Friday at noon, those will be counted. So it will be also a public expectation game of what you see on election night and the days following.
SIMONSWhat is being put in place to accelerate counting the votes? Because some of saying that the results of the election likely won't be available on election night just, because of all these mail-in ballots.
BOWMANSure. Well, like I described, we'll be accepting mail-in ballots after election night. So the numbers will change. However, Virginia code does allow for registrar's to start preprocessing absentee ballots before Election Day. Some bigger localities have used this mechanism for a long time. And so we are preparing everyone to use it providing training and providing guidelines so they can do processing as they come in and will not be overwhelmed all in one day.
SIMONSLet's take another call here. Velma is on the line from Gainesville, Virginia. Hi, Velma.
VALMAHi, there. Thank you for taking my call. I just want to say I'm an elections officer, actually an assistance chief at my precinct and since 2014. And I've recruited my husband and several other people. The problem that we have the hours are just too long. And I wonder if there's any thought of splitting the day, because we're literally there -- we normally get there about 4:30, quarter to five to setup. We go the night before and setup. We're not leaving there sometimes until 9nine, ten o'clock at night. It's just too long a day and you cannot leave the entire day. And I have actively recruited people. They've done it a couple of times. And they're like, No. We cannot do this. It's just too long.
VALMASo my question is have they given any thought to trying to split the day or, you know, I can understand the issue of people going in and out for changing shifts. But it's too long a day.
SIMONSYeah. Thanks, Velma. Jessica, any chance for shorter shifts?
BOWMANSure. So officers of election are controlled by local electoral boards and general registrars. And some boards and registrars have done that especially with volunteers that may greet people at the door. And those type of things. So I know some offices had looked at it and I'm sure that process will continue.
SIMONSClaire, you mentioned earlier, you know, some of the steps that the state has taken to increase voting including making Election Day a holiday, extending voting hours and enabling automatic voter registration. But at the same I can't help but ignore -- I can't ignore the fact that we are dealing with a pandemic. Do you have any predictions about turnout in November?
GASTANAGAWell, it's really hard to say how the pandemic is going to affect turnout. I mean, I'm hopeful that because everybody has, you know, three good options to be able vote and vote safely that they will, you know, really make it priority to plan how they're going to vote, when they're going to vote and make sure they vote gets cast and counted. And every election is important and this one is no different from others in that respect. So I did think each person is going to have really make voting a priority in order to make sure that they know what choice they want to make and that they make their choices, you know, starting on September 18th when they can start voting.
SIMONSHere's an email from Susan that I'd love for you to address, Claire, if you can. She says, "Was the mailing that was done by the non-profit legal? If not, is anyone suing them? I think what they did was really unfortunate. They made people become suspect of mail-in voting."
GASTANAGAYeah. This organization has been around for a while. And they have done similar efforts at voter education in the past. And they haven't always been accurate in the past either. I think it's, you know, really problematic that they weren't more careful about the way they went about this. But anyone can send literature to people. It's part of our First Amendment rights. And there isn't anything they did that was illegal. Unless it was, of course, an intentional effort to suppress voting, which no one has suggested. And that would be a criminal investigation that (unintelligible) attorney would have to take.
SIMONSLet's take one more quick call here. Linda in Woodbridge, Virginia. Hi, Linda.
LINDAOkay. My husband and I both sent in to volunteer several weeks ago. We have not heard anything. We haven't even heard if the request has been received. We've contacted the registrar's office twice and we have contacted our representative trying to find out if our applications were even received. And have never heard anything back.
SIMONSJessica, what should she do?
BOWMANYou can always contact us at the Department of Elections if your registrar has not gotten back to you. And we will try our best to put you in touch with them. And thank you for volunteering your time.
SIMONSOur guest today Jessica Bowman, Chief Deputy Commissioner of Virginia's Department of Elections and Claire Gastanaga, the Executive Director of the ACLU of Virginia. You're listening to The Kojo Nnamdi Show. I'm Sasha-Ann Simons sitting in for Kojo. Up next it's Kojo for Kids with Myisha Hines-Allen of the Washington Mystics. Stay with us.
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