By Sky Wilson, contributor
More than 5,400 Harrisonburg residents have already cast their ballots since early voting began last month, according to figures the city registrar’s office provided to The Citizen. That includes 3,507 voters who cast their ballots early in-person at city hall, as of Thursday. Another 1,167 absentee ballots — out of the 4,102 that were mailed out — have already been returned by mail and 861 people have delivered their ballots in person.
That means about one-fifth of Harrisonburg voters have already cast their ballots in the 2020 General Election. Harrisonburg has about 26,000 registered voters, according to the Registrar’s Office. The deadline to register for the Nov. 3 Election got extended two days this week to Thursday because an internet outage in parts of Virginia disrupted online registration on Oct. 13, which was the original deadline.
There has been a “stream” of people voting in-person or dropping off mail-in ballots, said Mark Finks, director of elections and general registrar.
He said Harrisonburg has already seen a higher number of early voters than in 2016, but that comparing those numbers is like “apples and oranges.” Many of the barriers to early voting have been removed in response to COVID-19.
Registered voters can still request a mail-in absentee ballot until Friday, Oct. 23 — 5 p.m. for in-person return or 11:59 p.m. online or by mail, postmarked by that day. After applying, voters can check the status of their absentee application — whether a ballot was sent and received — by going to the Virginia Department of Elections Citizen Portal.
Finks said his office is experiencing no major issues or glitches.
“Everything seems to be going fairly well,” said Finks, “We are going to have a successful election for everybody.”
As The Citizen’s voting guide outlined, Harrisonburg voters can cast ballots four different ways:
- In-person at city hall by Oct. 31:
- By mail, returned by the U.S. Postal Service or other courier and postmarked by Election Day (Nov. 3);
- By mail, returned by the voter to the Registrar’s Office or their normal voting location by 7 p.m. on Election Day (Nov. 3);
- And in-person at their designated polling station on Election Day.
TALKING TO VOTERS
Finks said his office has heard feedback from voters who are happy with the vote-by-mail option.
But The Citizen spoke to several residents who said they were “concerned” about their mail-in ballots making it to the registrar.
“I felt a lot better handing it in,” said local resident Michael White. “There are less steps where it could get lost.”
White and his wife, Susan Crosby, said they signed up to receive their mail-in ballots as soon as they could but, after receiving the ballots, they opted to bring them to city hall rather than return them via the Postal Service. The couple has voted absentee in years past, but this was their first time doing it so early.
Crosby said she felt the entire process went “smoothly,” although it was a bit “crowded” at city Hall in the first days of voting before workers moved the booths to the much larger atrium.
Kimber and Daniel Beers voted in-person at city hall last week.
“The new policy in Virginia is great. It took us like five minutes, and there was no one in the polling station. We feel like everyone should vote that way,” Daniel Beers said.
Finks said, so far, no voter has had to wait more than 15 minutes to vote early in-person, although this could change if traffic increases as Election Day approaches.
Tuyen Powell, a JMU student, is registered to vote but has never voted. She said she is not sure if she will vote in this election — she isn’t a fan of either major party candidate for president and said she doesn’t trust mail-in voting. If she votes, she said she plans to go into the polls on Election Day.
“I’m lucky enough to be able-bodied and young,” Powell said, “In my current situation, I am not as concerned if I were to get corona.”
Finks said the registrar’s office employees noticed a “small percentage” of voters have had trouble with one part of their mail-in ballots: ‘Envelope B.’ This is the smaller, secure envelope in which voters should place their ballot in before putting it inside the larger return envelope. Envelope B protects the secrecy of each citizens’ ballot until Election Day.
Before returning their mail-in ballot, voters should:
- Place their ballot inside Envelope B;
- Write the correct address on Envelope B;
- Sign Envelope B;
- Double check that all of the above has been completed correctly.
This year, the Virginia General Assembly allowed local registrars to contact voters to let them know that they filled out their envelope incorrectly.
The issue, Finks says, is that for many voters, his office has no way to contact them except their address so it can take a long time to track people down.
If you think you might have filled out your envelope incorrectly or made any other mistake with your mail-in ballot, a Harrisonburg resident can contact the Harrisonburg Registrar’s office to get it corrected.
Many news outlets, such as The New York Times, have been reporting on ‘signature matching’ as a major issue for mail-in voting in some places. But Finks said Harrisonburg voters don’t have to worry.
“We aren’t graphologists here…the main thing we are concerned about is that there’s a signature there and that it is the voter’s signature,” says Finks.
The signature on each ballot envelope is an “affirmation” from the voter that they filled out their ballot and followed the directions. It will only be taken into account if there are other, major concerns with the ballot.
The Registrar’s Office would also like to remind voters that they are NOT required to have a witness’ signature on Envelope B for the 2020 General Election. This direction overrides any instructions printed on the ballot envelope regarding witness signature.
The ballot envelopes were printed before this legislation was passed, Finks says. His office has made sure that the printed sheet of instructions which accompanies each ballot has the most up-to-date information.
The Harrisonburg Registrar’s Office is in daily contact with the Virginia Department of Elections for updates, questions, technical issues, or a variety of other issues.
Lots of help for volunteers and new poll workers
The Virginia Department of Elections is aiding local registrars in communicating upcoming deadlines and important election information with the public.
One useful tool from the Department of Elections is their Voter Pocket Guide, which can be downloaded to a smart phone or printed for easy use on or before Election Day. This guide includes all relevant deadlines, information about accessibility and absentee voting, what to expect at polling stations, and more.
The Department of Elections also provided a guide to absentee voting called “We’re All Free To Vote Absentee.” This also contains deadlines, links to the necessary applications, and a frequently asked questions section.
The Harrisonburg Registrar’s Office updates the city’s social media pages with reminders to register to vote and deadline notifications. The office is also working with local organizations, such as local political party groups, to get these messages out.
Every voter The Citizen spoke to said they learned about the options for voting through friends or via social media, although one also noted the signs displayed on Main Street that directs people to city hall where they can vote early.
“It’s a little busy in here, for sure,” said Finks, who took over the office in July.
He said his office is receiving a “tremendous” amount of help from volunteer election officers and the Electoral Board. Election officers, who usually only work on Election Day, have been staffing city hall each day to stuff ballot envelopes, direct in-person voters to the atrium, or do intake for dropped off mail-in ballots.
The Registrar’s Office has also gotten a “really good response” to their request for new poll workers.
A considerable number of experienced poll workers were not able to return this year for a variety of reasons including the COVID-19 pandemic, but the response from new volunteers has been overwhelming, Finks said. He said city precincts might end up being overstaffed, and he will likely encourage some volunteers to help in other localities.
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