By Debbie Adams
Governor Ralph Northam is recommending the 87 local elections in Virginia scheduled for May 5, including the Vinton Town Council election, be moved to November 3 at the same time as general elections, to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. His request was made at a press briefing on April 8.
While he has the statutory authority to postpone primaries by up to two weeks–which he did–moving them from June 9 to June 23, the governor cannot re-schedule local or state elections. That power belongs to the General Assembly who will make the final decision on the issue when it reconvenes for a special session in Richmond on April 22.
“As other states have shown, conducting an election in the middle of this global pandemic would bring unprecedented challenges and potential risk to voters and those who work at polling places across the Commonwealth,” said Governor Northam. “Making these decisions now will help election officials prepare and implement the necessary changes. This is about protecting the health and safety of Virginians during this pandemic and ensuring our citizens can make their voices heard in a safe, fair, and uniform manner. I urge the General Assembly to do their part and take action to move our upcoming elections.”
The plan the governor is proposing includes the following measures:
- There will be one ballot in November.
- Voters who are qualified in November will be able to vote in November. An individual who was not qualified in May but is qualified in November will be able to vote.
- All absentee ballots already cast will be discarded. Virginians will have an opportunity to vote for local elected officials in November.
- Those officials whose terms are to expire as of June 30, 2020 will continue in office until their successors have been elected on the November 3, 2020 and have been qualified to serve.
For Vinton, that means that Councilwoman Janet Scheid would continue in her position through the fall election. She announced in January that she would not be running for re-election.
The Roanoke County Registrar’s Office for weeks has been encouraging all registered voters who currently reside in the Town of Vinton who wish to vote to request an absentee ballot for the May 5 election. The deadline for the request by mail is 5 p.m. on April 28.
Anna Cloeter, Director of Elections and General Registrar for Roanoke County, says that all 5,000 registered voters in Vinton who had not previously requested an absentee ballot were mailed an application on April 10.
“We’ve pre-filled the forms with the election date and reason code, and just need people who are interested in voting to send them back to us by mail using the return envelope we provided, scanning or emailing us a picture of the completed form, or dropping them off in the big mailbox in front of the Craig Center,” said Cloeter. “Our packets also include a slip with a message that we would strongly encourage everyone to vote by absentee ballot if possible and informing them of the Election Day polling place change in the event that they were unable to get their requests in by the deadline or were worried that their marked ballot might not make it back to us by 7 p.m. on Election Night.”
Cloeter says that the governor’s announcement caught their department by surprise and left them somewhat in limbo. Communications from the Department of Elections have instructed them to proceed “as if the election is happening on May 5 until the General Assembly finalizes their work. Our emergency request to consolidate and relocate the polling place for the upcoming town election was approved by the Department of Elections weeks ago.”
In a memo to Vinton Town Council on March 26, Town Manager Barry Thompson said that “Roanoke County has moved the Roanoke County Registrar’s Office to the Craig Center (located at 900 Chestnut Street) in Vinton because of the upcoming May Town Election. The registrar has requested the Commonwealth of Virginia to approve an emergency move of the precincts to an Absentee Voting Precinct. I have worked with the town treasurer regarding the location of the election precincts and we would be able to use the Treasurer’s Office on Election Day. The registrar would use her staff to conduct the election from the Treasurer’s Office, which is behind glass. Voters are being asked to vote by absentee ballot; however, if they come to vote in person each precinct would be at the Municipal Building in the Treasurer’s Office. We have posted information from the registrar at the building entrances, the drive-through, on our website, and on social media about voting absentee.”
Currently, Vinton town residents vote at either the North Precinct located at Vinton Baptist Church or the South Precinct located at the Charles Hill Community Center.
Under the system developed by the town and county in this emergency situation, three people would be able to vote at once in the Treasurer’s øffice while practicing social distancing.
The Town of Vinton will incur extra costs if the election is moved to November. According to Vinton Treasurer and Finance Director Anne Cantrell, the town budgets about $5,000 for the costs of the local election. The ballots cost about $2,100. If the election is postponed, new ballots will have to be printed at an added cost to the town.
Virginia State Senator David Suetterlein has indicated that he will not support moving the local elections from May to November.
A press release from Suetterlein’s office said, “Today Governor Ralph Northam proposed suspending the underway May local elections, extending the terms of current officeholders, discarding already cast ballots, and moving these elections to the November federal elections. The governor said he would be asking the General Assembly to support unspecified legislation advancing such a proposal.
“Suspending the underway May local elections, extending terms, discarding already cast ballots isn’t right,” responded Suetterlein. “The Department of Elections has rightly allowed universal absentee mail-in ballots to voters for weeks and voters should continue to use that option over the next 27 days. The governor is under intense pressure, but any proposal to suspend elections and discard already cast ballots should trouble all Virginians.”
Other state senators have suggested moving the local elections to the same date as the primary election to be held on June 23.
The ballot for Vinton Town Council includes three names for the May 5 election. Vinton Mayor Brad Grose is seeking re-election to his seat and running unopposed.
Two of the four council seats need to be filled in the May election—those of Keith Liles and Janet Scheid.
Liles is running to keep his seat on council where he currently serves as vice mayor. Laurie Jacobs Mullins announced on February 25 that she is running for a seat on council as well.
In another twist, additional candidates may still qualify for the ballot if they file by the second Tuesday in June as required under 24.2-503(iv), and they will still be subject to the same requirements relating to the number of petition signatures required, declarations to be filed, etc. Candidates currently qualified for the May election will not have to re-qualify.
Voter registration and absentee ballot requests for the May, June, and November elections can be submitted online via the Department of Elections’ voter information portal at https://vote.elections.virginia.gov/VoterInformation.
Alternatively, voters may contact the registrar at 772-7500 or via email at email@example.com to request voter registration and absentee ballot application materials be sent to them via mail or email.
Voters may also download the absentee ballot application for the upcoming town election at http://bit.ly/VoteABforTOV and submit their completed forms via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by regular mail to Roanoke County Elections, P.O. Box 20884, Roanoke, 24018. They may fax ballots to 772-2115.
Returning the application for an absentee ballot and then the ballot itself will cost voters a postage stamp.