By Sky Wilson, contributor
While every election season has its own set of distinct issues, the 2020 election will be unlike any other. Set against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, voters — including those in Harrisonburg — will not only have to decide for whom they will vote but also how they’ll cast their ballots.
Mail-in and in-person absentee balloting will begin later this month, and more voters are expected to choose that option than in past elections in an effort to avoid crowded polling precincts during this era of social distancing.
So here’s The Citizen’s guide to what Harrisonburg voters need to know about casting their ballots in 2020.
Harrisonburg’s 2020 Election schedule
While Election Day isn’t until November, voters can cast their ballots starting later this month. Here are some key dates:
- Sept. 18 — Absentee voting begins.
- Oct. 13 — Voter registration deadline.
- (This can be done online, in-person at the General Registrar’s Office, or by mail. Voters are encouraged to check their registration status and update their information on the Virginia Department of Elections website.)
- Oct. 23 (at 5 p.m.) — Deadline to request mail-in absentee ballot.
- Oct. 31 — In-person absentee voting at city hall ends.
- Nov. 3 — Election Day. Polls are open 6 a.m.-7 p.m.
- Nov. 6 — Last day that ballots postmarked by Nov. 3 will be counted.
This fall, Virginians will cast their votes for U.S. president and vice president and for representatives in Congress. Two proposed amendments to the Virginia Constitution are on the ballot. In Harrisonburg, voters will also decide the fate of several city council and school board seats. (See below for who’s running.)
Ways to vote absentee
On July 1, the Virginia General Assembly expanded absentee voting to broaden access during the COVID-19 pandemic. This expansion took two forms: the addition of “no-excuse absentee voting” and a longer time frame for in-person absentee voting.
“It’s an unprecedented election this year. There’s a lot of new laws that have been implemented in Virginia that change how elections operate,” said Mark Finks, Harrisonburg’s director of elections and general registrar. “I think there are still a lot of voters who are unaware of the changes that have happened.”
Finks stepped into the role of Director of Elections and General Registrar on July 15, following his stint as the manager of Court Square Theater.
In previous elections, voters needed to provide a specific reason for their absence on Election Day, such as health concerns, military service or college enrollment. Now, anyone who would prefer to vote by mail can apply to do so — no reason is necessary.
The absentee ballot application can be found here. The deadline to request a mail-in absentee ballot is 5 p.m. Friday, Oct. 23.
Absentee ballots will be mailed to voters by the Registrar’s Office beginning Sept. 18. Applications submitted after Sept. 18 will receive their ballot within three days of processing.
Ballots returned by mail must be postmarked by Election Day in order to be counted. No ballots will be accepted after 12 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 6.
Absentee ballot drop-off
Also beginning Sept. 18, voters can visit Harrisonburg City Hall to cast their absentee ballot in-person. No application is needed for this. Voters should bring approved identification with their name and address on it, just as they would to a polling location on Election Day. In-person absentee voting at City Hall ends Oct. 31.
“Most people aren’t aware they have that 45-day period [to vote in-person absentee],” Finks said. He said he and his staff have been hoping to educate more people about this option, with help from the Virginia Department of Elections.
But other than personally delivering the ballots to the local election officials at the Registrar’s Office on the first floor of city hall, no other drop-off points will be set up. The only valid ways of returning an absentee ballot are via courier (U.S. Postal Service, UPS, or FedEx) or personally to the Registrar’s Office, according to state law.
Absentee ballots may be returned directly, in-person, to Finks or one of his assistants, by the registered voter. City hall is open from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. No one can return a ballot for someone else, and ballots cannot be given to other city departments or put in any kind of dropbox. Mistakes in returning an absentee ballot can cause that ballot to be invalidated.
Some localities have placed drop boxes for ballots at the local Registrar’s Office. However, unless the state requires it, Harrisonburg won’t implement that for the 2020 General Election.
“I understand some citizens are concerned about the mail process. At this time, I don’t have any concerns,” Finks said. “I would advise any citizens that are concerned about the mailing process to return [their ballot] as soon as they can.”
He said if voters return their ballots soon after they are mailed on Sept.18, that gives local elections officials plenty of time to count all ballots before Election Day.
“If a citizen is very concerned about putting their ballot in the mail, they do have the option of taking the ballot and bringing it to the General Registrar’s Office,” Finks said. “It’s up to each individual voter to decide, if they do want to vote absentee, then what process works better for them and what they feel safer doing.”
Voting on Election Day
In-person voting will still take place on Election Day at polling locations throughout the city. Polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Anyone in line at 7 p.m. will be allowed to vote. Harrisonburg citizens can locate their polling place here.
Mitigations are being put in place to ensure the safety of voters and poll workers on Election Day. Election officers will be enforcing social distancing and enhanced cleaning procedures. It is also recommended that all voters wear a mask to their polling location.
“There were safety cautions that were put in place for the Republican primary that was held most recently during COVID. So, we will be using those precautions as well as expanding them,” Finks said.
At this time, the city is not expecting any changes in the number or location of polling places, as some counties around the country experienced during the Spring primaries. Finks reported that they are in the process of recruiting and securing poll workers for Election Day. Many new volunteers have already reached out to help.
“We would encourage anyone who would be interested in serving in that capacity, and feels safe doing that, to reach out” to the registrar’s office, Finks said.
Who’s running in Harrisonburg?
Harrisonburg voters will have choices in city council and school board races in addition to choosing a presidential candidate and voting in the U.S. Senate race — between Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Warner and Republican challenger Daniel Gade — and the 6th Congressional District Race between Republican U.S. Rep. Ben Cline and Democratic challenger Nicholas Betts.
Five candidates are vying for three seats on the city council:
- Deanna Reed, a Democrat who is finishing her first term as mayor;
- George Hirschmann, an independent who is finishing his first term on the council;
- Laura Dent, a Democratic running for the first time
- Charles Hendricks, a Democrat running for the first time
- Kathleen “Doc” Kelley, a Republican running for the first time
And four candidates are running for three spots — which are nonpartisan positions — on the Harrisonburg City Public Schools board:
- Debra Fitzgerald, an incumbent
- Kaylene Seigle, an incumbent
- Nick Swayne, an incumbent
- Irvin Peckham
Complete information on Harrisonburg voting procedure can be found on the City’s website or by contacting the General Registrar’s Office.
More information about who and what will be on the November Election ballot can be found on the Virginia Department of Elections website, including a list of candidates for other localities, such as Rockingham County and cities like Elkton.
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