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Virginia voting guide: What to know about voting on Election Day

Mandatory Credit: Photo by JIM LO SCALZO/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock (10988119h) Voters wait in a light rain to cast their votes at the Fairfax County Government Center on Friday. Early voting in Virginia began on Sept. 18 and ends on Oct. 31. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Record numbers of people voted early in Virginia after the coronavirus pandemic and newly loosened election laws reshaped voting habits here during this year’s presidential election.

More than 1.6 million voters have cast ballots in person since early voting began Sept. 18, while more than 830,000 have voted by mail or drop box or handed in their absentee ballots to local election officials, according to the state Department of Elections. Nervous voters are scrutinizing every word of the absentee voting instructions, and scolding public officials when they find something inadequate.

Amid worries that the coronavirus pandemic could affect turnout and fears that absentee votes could be disqualified because of U.S. Postal Service delays, Virginia has taken steps to make voting in the state easier. The General Assembly approved measures to broaden access to absentee voting, including by allowing ballot drop boxes — which Gov. Ralph Northam (D) signed into law. Northam also signed a bill that declares Election Day a state holiday.

More voting guides: Maryland | D.C.

“I am committed to making sure all Virginians have access to the ballot box,” Northam said when announcing the proposal for drop boxes, more funding for postage for ballots and other changes, “and will continue to work with state and federal lawmakers to ensure safe, secure and accessible elections this fall.”

But the process has not been completely smooth so far, with long waits to cast a ballot in person and, recently, an issue in the state system for absentee ballots that allowed thousands of voters to apply for one after the Oct. 23 deadline to do so.

Below are answers to some of the more common questions Virginians may have about voting this year.

When is the election, and what is on the ballot in Virginia?

The Nov. 3 election isn’t just about the presidential contest between President Trump and Joe Biden. Virginia voters will also choose between U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D) and Republican challenger Daniel M. Gade, while 11 House of Representatives seats and a state House of Delegates seat in Frederick County are also on the ballot.

There are also several state and local referendums, including on whether to amend Virginia’s Constitution to allow for the creation of a 16-member commission tasked with redrawing election district boundaries.

Is it too late to register to vote?

Yes. The deadline to register to vote was Oct. 15. Virginia does not allow same-day registration like Maryland and the District do. You can confirm your status with the state Elections Department online.

Some states are cutting the number of polling stations and using larger voting centers to reduce the possibility of coronavirus infections. Is Virginia?

No. As of now, all of the usual polling places will be open, state elections officials say. Under Virginia law, every precinct in the state must have a polling station operating on Election Day. Some precinct stations can be consolidated, but that would need special approval.

Can I vote by mail?

Yes. But get your ballot in the mail now! Your absentee ballot must be postmarked by Nov. 3 in order for it to count. And local election officials must receive it by noon on Nov. 6. You don’t need a special reason to do this, but the deadline to apply for an absentee ballot expired on Oct. 23.

Worried about mail delays, local election officials are encouraging voters with absentee ballots to use the secure drop boxes that have been installed at voting locations.

During its special session, Virginia’s General Assembly passed Northam’s proposals for the drop boxes, funding for prepaid postage for mailed ballots and another change that allows absentee voters to correct errors on their ballots so they can be counted. Ballots with mistakes on them are disqualified. Northam signed the measures into law in early September.

Map of ballot drop box locations in D.C., Maryland and Virginia

Virginia voters who are overseas or stationed outside the state while in the U.S. military and who haven’t received a state ballot in time can fill out a Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot and either email a scanned copy to or fax it to 804-371-0194.

What are the deadlines to get a mail-in/absentee ballot?

Mail-in or absentee ballots were made available Sept. 18, and local registrars will send them out to voters, usually on a first-come, first-served basis. The statewide deadline to request this ballot was 5 p.m. Oct. 23. If you apply for an absentee ballot after that deadline, it will not be valid for the Nov. 3 election.

You’ll need your ballot in time to fill it out and return it by 7 p.m. on Election Day. If you are returning your ballot by mail, it must be postmarked on or before Election Day. Take into account that the elections office is probably very busy processing higher-than-usual numbers of absentee ballot applications.

What if I don’t receive a mail-in ballot after my request?

You can call your local elections office to request another one, although they may ask you to fill out an online form to make the request formal. You could also go to the local elections office and either fill out the form there or vote in-person there. You also have the option of showing up at the polling place and filling out a provisional ballot, which will be counted once election officials confirm you are registered and have not previously cast a ballot.

What if I have an emergency that forces me to miss the application or voting deadlines?

You can request an emergency absentee ballot if you were unable to meet the application deadline because of hospitalization or illness involving you or a member of your family or another emergency that justifies receiving such a ballot.

If you need an emergency ballot, you must request it from your local elections office by 2 p.m. on Nov. 2. You can get an application from that office or by downloading a copy from the state Elections Department website. If approved, that office will provide the ballot to your designated representative so it can be delivered to you. You’ll need that person to witness that you filled out the ballot, which should be returned to your local elections office or local polling station before polls close at 7 p.m. on Election Day.

Can I turn in my mail-in ballot or do I have to mail it — and what is the deadline?

You can do either. If you are returning your ballot in person, it must be received by your local elections office or put into a drop box by 7 p.m. on Election Day.

If you are sending it back by mail, it must be postmarked on or before Election Day and received by your local elections office by noon Nov. 6. But keep in mind that there isn’t much time left to mail ballots. Officials in Fairfax County on Oct. 29 said it “strongly" recommended voters use a ballot drop box instead of the mail to make sure their ballot is returned on time.

You can also return your mail-in ballot at your polling place on Election Day. You should NOT give your ballot to someone else to return it — that is considered ballot harvesting and is illegal in Virginia.

Virginia’s blue wave shows no sign of slowing ahead of key House races next week

Do I need a stamp if I mail it back in?

Some localities will include an envelope with prepaid postage, but not all of them, since it isn’t mandatory. Check with your local elections office. The General Assembly also approved setting aside $2 million for prepaid postage on mail-in ballots and instructing registrars to allow voters to correct ballot errors that might keep an absentee vote from being counted.

Do I need a witness to sign my absentee ballot before turning it in?

No. A federal court has approved a consent decree negotiated by the office of Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) that allows elections officers to accept absentee ballots without a witness’s signature. The purpose of the agreement is to accommodate voters who are worried having a witness present while filling out their ballot could put them at risk of being infected by the coronavirus. In addition, the General Assembly’s bills also would remove the requirement for a witness to certify a ballot signature.

My signature has changed since I registered. What if it doesn’t match my signature on file?

You don’t need to worry. Virginia does not compare signatures for voting.

Why is there so much concern about the U.S. Postal Service this year?

While the Postal Service has coordinated vote-by-mail programs with some Western states for years, an unprecedented number of voters are eligible to cast a ballot this way in November, in part because states want to limit in-person voting to avoid the spread of the coronavirus. The Postal Service warned all but four states that they have deadlines that could leave voters disenfranchised. At the same time, operational changes implemented over the past few months have slowed delivery by as much as a week in some places, fueling widespread fears that ballots could be delivered too late to count in November.

Congress intends to address the matter, and Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has said he will suspend, but not necessarily reverse, the heavily criticized cost-cutting measures. It’s not clear when the delivery slowdowns will end.

What has President Trump been saying about mail-in voting, and how are local officials responding?

President Trump has predicted, without evidence, that mail-in balloting will be laden with fraud. Local officials note that there have been very few examples of fraud connected to absentee ballots in previous elections. A recent Washington Post analysis of data collected by three vote-by-mail states with help from the nonprofit organization Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) found that officials identified 372 possible cases of double voting or voting on behalf of deceased people out of about 14.6 million votes cast by mail in the 2016 and 2018 general elections, or 0.0025 percent.

Can I vote in person if I requested a mail-in ballot?

Yes. Amid the worries surrounding the Postal Service, hundreds of Virginia voters have called the state elections office trying to cancel their mail-ballot requests, according to Chris Piper, the top elections official in the state. Piper said there is no formal way to do so, but voters who want to vote in person should bring their mail ballot with them to the polls, allowing officials there to void it.

How do I ensure my vote gets counted?

Make sure you are registered to vote and follow all of the state Elections Department requirements for in-person or absentee voting, including deadlines for mail-in and/or emergency voting. For in-person voting, polls open at 6 a.m. and close at 7 p.m. If you are in line by 7 p.m. polls will stay open until you can vote. Make sure to bring some proof of ID and check with your local elections office in advance to confirm where your precinct polling station is. For absentee voting, confirm that your application was processed and return your completed ballot in time.

When are mail-in ballots counted?

Mail-in ballots may be kept by registrars within the second sealed envelope in a secure location until Election Day. But registrars also have the option to process them early, opening the second envelope and running the ballot through a voting machine. To do that, they must notify party representatives and elections officers so they can be present to observe. There is no tally of those votes before Election Day.

How do I volunteer at a polling station?

State and local election officials are eager to sign up more polling station volunteers and election officers. You can do so through the state Elections Department or through your local elections office. You must be a registered voter in Virginia who doesn’t hold an elected office or work for an elected official. You should be available between 5 a.m. and 9 p.m. on Election Day, with the day broken into shifts.

Election officers and volunteers undergo about three hours of training before working on Election Day, where they will help set up voting equipment, check photo IDs and names, help voters understand how to use the voting machines and tabulate the votes in their precinct when polls close.

Under Virginia law, an employer cannot fire someone who was out on Election Day because they were working at a polling station, or force them to take a sick day. Election officers can be paid a modest stipend, which varies by locality.

Voting in D.C., Maryland and Virginia

Map: Where to vote early in D.C., Maryland and Virginia

Voting guides: D.C. | Maryland | VirginiaHow to vote: D.C. | Maryland | Virginia

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Are you running into voting problems? Let us know here.

Mail-in voting: Absentee ballots vs. mail-in ballots | How to prevent your mail ballot from being rejected | Maryland, D.C., Fairfax officials urge voters to avoid mailing ballots, use drop boxes instead