Northern Virginia lawmakers generally support a new, later absentee-voting deadline, even though it likely will delay by several days the reporting of final results of the Nov. 3 election, but said voters should cast their ballots far in advance just to be safe.
The new absentee-voting deadline took effect July 1 and was the result of bills patroned this year by Del. Mark Sickles (D-Franconia) and state Sen. Bryce Reeves (R-Fredericksburg). Both measures passed with strong bipartisan support, but did so before the COVID-19 pandemic upended nearly everything.
Previously, absentee votes had to have been received by elections offices by 7 p.m. on Election Day. The new rule allows votes postmarked by Election Day to be counted if election officials receive them by noon the Friday three days afterward.
Given the volume of votes expected for this fall’s election, the final count might not be available until Monday, Nov. 9, Fairfax County General Registrar Gary Scott told the Sun Gazette.
State lawmakers chose the new deadline because that is when provisional ballots traditionally must be resolved, Sickles said.
“This is going to help get more votes counted,” Sickles said of the new law. “I think we’ve probably lost hundreds of votes over the years by folks’ putting in their ballot in the mail around Election Day.”
Virginia law allows absentee ballots to be mailed in up to 45 days before an election and Sickles urged voters planning to do so this fall to send their ballots weeks in advance of the election.
Sickles predicted localities also would provide secure drop boxes for absentee ballots at satellite-voting locations.
“We need to do what we can to keep people from waiting in these crowded lines on Election Day, because turnout is going to be historic in nature,” he said.
Bryan Graham, chairman of the Fairfax County Democratic Committee, said voters should have a sense of security that voting by mail will result in their votes being tallied.
“We have confidence in the integrity of the election offices of Fairfax County and the commonwealth and see no way that this delay of results leaves room for tampering with the outcome,” he said.
While increased absentee voting is “unquestionably a win for our democracy,” voters who are new to the process may need help navigating the requisite forms and instructions, Graham said. Nearly 4 percent of absentee ballots cast in Fairfax County during this June’s Democratic primary in the 11th Congressional District were not counted because they were received late, he added.
But receiving and counting absentee ballots after Election Day may raise some eyebrows with the public, said Del. Marcus Simon (D-McLean).
“We’re already hearing that the president and some of his supporters are promoting conspiracy theories suggesting that there’s going to be a ‘fix’ that’s put in,” he said. “Anytime you get one result on Election Night and a different result a few days later, it creates the opportunity for that narrative to take hold. I think we’ll try to get as many of the votes counted and reported on Election Night as possible.”
There likely will be a record number of absentee votes – maybe 60 percent – cast in this fall’s election, and the vast majority of those will be received by the Board of Elections by 7 p.m. on Election Day, Simon said. The more votes officials can count and announce on Election Day, the less opportunity there will be for a significant change in the results, he said.
Del. Mark Keam (D-Oakton-Vienna) predicted the new absentee-voting changes will work out well, despite anticipated delivery delays by the U.S. Postal Service. The presidential election likely will not be close in Virginia, so the few more days needed for the state to issue its final report will not make any difference in the ultimate outcome of that race, he said.
“I believe our state will vote for Joe Biden with a large margin, so the results reported for all the ballots cast on or before Election Day should be significant enough that no amount of votes to be counted in the delayed mail will change the outcome,” Keam said.
State Sen. Barbara Favola (D-Arlington-Fairfax-Loudoun) said passage of Sickles’ and Reeves’ bills was a good idea because it facilitates voting by mail, which is critical during a public-health crisis.
The U.S. Postal Service needs to be funded sufficiently to deliver the ballots in a timely fashion, Favola said. If enough resources are available locally, officials will be able to count the votes in a “fairly expeditious manner,” she said.
State Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax-Vienna) said if he had known how profoundly the pandemic would boost absentee-voting participation, he probably would have opposed the new rules when they came up for votes in the General Assembly session earlier this year.
Petersen predicted the new rules “absolutely” will wreak havoc on the counting of absentee votes following the Nov. 3 election. Absentee-voting percentages were quite high in this spring’s municipal elections in Vienna and the city of Fairfax, he said.
“I think it’s fair to say that nobody in their worst nightmare expected that we were going to have an election where you could have 50 percent, or maybe even 70 percent, of the votes be mail-in absentee,” he said.
While many voters will opt to mail in ballots or cast them early at “satellite” voting centers, those opting to go to the polls on Nov. 3 should not face undue risks, said National Institute of Allergy and Infectious diseases director Dr. Anthony Fauci.
“I think if carefully done, according to the guidelines, there’s no reason that I can see why that not be the case,” Fauci told ABC News. “If you go and wear a mask, if you observe the physical distancing, and don’t have a crowded situation, there’s no reason why shouldn’t be able to do that.”