Fairfax County election officials bobbed and weaved this fall not only to accommodate a tsunami of voters, but also a slew of election-related bills that were passed this spring by the General Assembly and took effect July 1, Electoral Board secretary Katherine Hanley told the Board of Supervisors Nov. 17.
Under the new rules, voters no longer had to present photo identifications at the polls or choose from 17 potential reasons for absentee voting, which officials now call “early voting,” she said.
People voting by mail no longer had to make sure their ballots arrived at the county’s Office of Elections by 7 p.m. on Election Day. Instead, those ballots had to be postmarked by Election Day and received no later than noon on the Friday afterward, Nov. 6.
New laws also established requirements for satellite-voting offices, which stipulated that localities needed to pass ordinances identifying those voting locations in their communities. Officials were prohibited from changing those voting sites within 60 days before the election, Hanley said. Fairfax County supervisors adopted such an ordinance on July 14, but the pandemic caused further complications, she said.
Other actions at the state level also affected the November election. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) delayed the June primary by two weeks and removed the requirement for a witness signature for absentee ballots. That latter decision applied only to the primary election.
General Assembly members, who convened for an unusually long special session in late summer and early fall, required that drop-off boxes for absentee ballots be provided at all satellite-voting locations, as well as all polling locations on Election Day, Hanley said.
In addition, state lawmakers established a process to “cure” errors on the envelopes into which absentee voters placed their ballots. Election officials were allowed to alert voters about the mistakes and accept such cures until the Friday following the election. Fairfax County officials contacted 2,113 voters about cures in the November election and 1,315 responded, a 63-percent success rate, she said.
Legislators also allocated money to pay for postage on absentee-ballot return envelopes. This measure, as well as the aforementioned cures, applied only to the Nov. 3 election, Hanley said. A court ruling also allowed the earlier no-witness requirement for absentee votes to be continued to that election, she said.
Because of policy changes close to the election, materials often had to be altered and reprinted quickly, Hanley said.
The computer system used by state election officials desperately needs to be improved, she added.
“It’s creaky. It slows down. It doesn’t let voters know they’ve completed an application when they apply online,” Hanley said. “We had one voter who had applied 19 times in 10 seconds because nothing said, like Amazon does, ‘You are done. You’ve done it. We’ve got it.’ He just kept hitting the button.”
County officials also had to hand-label more than 260,000 absentee-voting packets that were to be mailed out. The state’s computer system could not talk to the county’s printer in the proper language to label the envelopes with required data to identify voters and the tracking system, Hanley said.
Each packet required three labels and county officials ordered 1 million labels because they came in sets of four. “Hopefully, we will never have to do that again,” she said.
County officials had to lock down satellite-voting locations in January and February and could not change them later, despite the unanticipated pandemic’s impact, Hanley said.
Supervisor Walter Alcorn (D-Hunter Mill) favored pressing state legislators next year for the authority to add such locations later in the election process, if necessary.
Hanley formerly served as Providence District supervisor and later as Board of Supervisors chairman. County officials named a family shelter in the Fairfax area in her honor.
Hanley’s Electoral Board term ends Dec. 31 and she said she does not know if she will be reappointed. Supervisor Penelope Gross (D-Mason) indicated she would like to see Hanley’s service continue.
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