More than 790,000 Virginia voters have already requested mail-in ballots for the 2020 election, nearly triple the number who voted absentee by mail four years ago, Gov. Ralph Northam said Tuesday.
"This will be an unprecedented election," Northam said. "The combination of a presidential election year and a pandemic is nothing any of us has experienced.”
Northam used a Tuesday afternoon news conference in Richmond that was broadcast statewide to reassure Virginia voters that mail-in votes will be secure, and he also blasted President Trump for ignoring public health guidelines at recent rallies and for criticizing veterans.
In 2016, the state processed 566,000 absentee votes, with about half of those in person and half by mail, Northam said. However, relaxed rules for mail-in voting during the pandemic have resulted in increased demand this year.
“We know that that demand will continue to go up," the governor added.
The first batches of ballots will be mailed to voters Friday, and selected locations will also open Friday for early voting in person. Unlike prior years, voters do not need to have an excuse to vote either by mail or in person before election day, Nov. 3.
Northam noted that all mail-in ballots will come with prepaid return postage and include an intelligent barcode so voters can ensure their ballots are received by elections officials.
“We have taken extra steps to ensure the security of our absentee ballots," he said.
Virginia law allows election officials to process early votes as they are received, which means that Virginia results should be available on election night. But Northam noted that's not the same for all states.
“Everyone should be prepared to wait a few days to know the results of the presidential election," he said. "It’s better to get an accurate count than a fast one.”
Northam, a Democrat, has typically avoided harsh criticisms of Trump during his news conferences to discuss the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Tuesday was different.
Asked about Virginia's test positivity rate, which is slightly higher than that in some surrounding states, Northam cited the need for Virginians to follow social distancing guidelines and to wear masks.
"It’s the behavior that’s the challenge," he said. "Despite what's going on in Washington, if we can do what we know works … then we can get our numbers even lower. It’s that behavior that will put this pandemic behind us. Not testing, not tracing, not PPE, but behavior."
He cited two recent Trump rallies that were held indoors without social distancing measures and with minimal wearing of masks by participants.
“It just goes against the science and the grain of what we’re trying to do as Americans and what we’re trying to do as states," Northam said. "When we have a president that ignores the science, number one, and then goes against what even his consultants are telling him to do, it just defeats the purpose and it’s very frustrating.”
Northam, who graduated from Virginia Military Institute and served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps from 1984 to 1992, also reacted to Trump's alleged comments regarding U.S. service members.
"When you have the leader of our country referring to people like me and other men and women who have worn the uniform, to refer to them as 'losers' and 'suckers,' it just turns my stomach," he said. "As an American, as a Virginian, I have trouble looking up to a leader, I have trouble respecting a leader who refers to my fellow veterans in that manner.”
Among other topics covered at Tuesday's news conference:
- Northam said he is asking the State Corporation Commission to extend the moratorium preventing utility providers from disconnecting services due to nonpayment until Oct. 5. The moratorium is currently scheduled to expire Wednesday. Northam said his budget currently being considered by the General Assembly will include a repayment structure and debt forgiveness program for utility customers who have been unable to pay their bills due to the pandemic.
- Eligibility requirements will be eased for the state's $70 million grant program for small businesses affected by the pandemic, with details to be announced next week.
- State officials are closely watching COVID-19 case numbers in Southwestern Virginia. The region is averaging 229 cases a day, which is more than heavily populated Northern Virginia, and Northam said the numbers are concerning because that area of the state has fewer health-care resources. “We just don’t have the hospitals and especially the ICU capabilities.”