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Election officials gear up for unprecedented day at the polls

Voters in Albemarle County may see some new faces at their precincts on Nov. 3, as about 40% of the county’s approximately 400 election officers are working their first election.

Training was done virtually, and officials say they are ready to handle whatever Election Day brings, from counting an unprecedented number of early votes to potential intimidation, as area voters look to elect a president, congressman, senator and decide on two constitutional amendments amid a pandemic.

“I have great confidence that this will work out, even if we get a lot of people,” said Nick Evans, chief official of a county precinct. “It’s not rocket science, it’s just that people need to be made to feel comfortable with the roles that they’re assuming.”

Evans, who has been an election official for more than a decade, will be a chief official at a precinct for the first time. He said he has about 11 people working under him this year, and more than half of them are new.

Earlier this year, the Albemarle County Electoral Board realized that about half of all of the county’s election officers were 70 years old or older.

“Naturally, quite a few of those opted out from working this Nov. 3, but then we had people, way more than we could use, offer to be election officers,” said Jim Heilman, secretary of the Albemarle Electoral Board.

But nearly half of registered voters in Albemarle have already voted — as of Friday morning, 23,152 people have already voted early in person and 16,026 mail-in ballots have been returned out of 81,674 registered voters.

Despite more than 2 million voters in Virginia already casting their ballots, official results do not get certified until well after the election.

“I just wanted to remind everyone, we’re looking more at an election week than an election night, and that’s nothing to be alarmed about,” Gov. Ralph Notham said in a briefing last week. “That is the process working as the law intended.”

He said local electoral boards certify results on Nov. 10 and the state board certifies the results on Nov. 16.

Last week, in a joint statement from Charlottesville and Albemarle Commonwealth’s Attorneys and Chiefs of Police, the officials said their expectation is for an orderly and peaceable election day, but their organizations are “committed to investigating and prosecuting any violation of the law that involves the intimidation or harassment of citizens seeking to vote.”

“We do not expect there to be trouble outside or inside the polling places on election day,” Heilman said. “However, if there is trouble, we are prepared to take care of it.”

He said chief election officers will have an opinion from Attorney General Mark Herring that talks about the different election offenses that could happen, including intimidation, and riotous behavior.

Last Tuesday, Albemarle had 1,025 early in-person voters, surpassing 1,000 voters for the first time.

Heilman said early in-person voting has gone smoothly, and the line has been not longer than about 20 minutes, with the longest coming on the first day Sept. 18. Heilman had made up a “certificate of appreciation” for the first early voter in Albemarle County.

“I got there several minutes before we opened, and there was already a fairly good line and a couple in their folding chairs right next to the door, who told me they had been there since 5:50 in the morning, even though they knew we did not open until 8:30,” he said. “They got the certificate of appreciation.”

With early in-person voting now over, registered voters still have a chance to vote in person on Nov. 3. With the number of people who have already voted in Albemarle, Heilman expects the lines to be on the shorter side — he expects a maximum wait of about 30 minutes

“That’s what we wanted, because that allows us to maintain that social distancing that we want so much to protect both our voters and our election officers,” he said.

Besides changes related to the COVD-19 pandemic, voters on Nov. 3 will experience other changes. Voters in Virginia no longer have to have a photo ID as their form of identification to vote — other documents like a current utility bill, bank statement, government check, or paycheck containing the name and address of the voter are also now valid.

“Even if they don’t have any ID, they can sign a form called a confirmation of identity, which says that they are swearing or affirming that they are who they are, and that’s acceptable,” Heilman said.

Heilman said another big change is that the election officer checking the voter in no longer has to repeat the voter’s address, just their name.

“I think some voters will be happy because they want their address to be a bit more private,” he said. “They’re still going to have to give their address for us to check them in, but it’s not going to be repeated for all the world to hear.”

Those who vote in person will also be asked to maintain social distancing and wear masks. Heilman said all election officers will be wearing masks and party representatives who are observing inside will also be required to wear masks.

“We cannot require voters to wear masks, we ask them to please, please do it to protect our election officers as well as themselves,” he said. “We will offer them a mask to keep and if they don’t want that, we will also offer them the chance to vote what we call curbside, but from their car and anyone can vote from their car.”

A person designated as a “health officer” will be cleaning the voting booths every 15 minutes, Heilman said. Pens will be sanitized between voters, as well as door handles and other high-touch surfaces.

In addition to face masks, election officers will have face shields and sneeze guards will be up in front of every check-in table, the chief’s table and the ballot officer’s table.

“It is a very expensive election,” Heilman said.

While the Virginia Department of Elections has provided much of the personal protective equipment and the University of Virginia Facilities Management department made and donated a majority of the sneeze guards, Heilman said they have still incurred costs around all new ballot drop boxes, having election officers at each day of early in-person voting and staff overtime.

Those who have a mail-in ballot that they have not sent in yet have two options on how to vote on Nov. 3 — they can drop their completed ballot off at any drop box at any of the polling places in Albemarle or they can vote inside at their precinct. Heilman said it’s easier on everyone if people bring in their mail-in ballot with them to vote.

“We asked them to please, please bring that ballot that they got in the mail with them because it makes it a lot faster for them, for our election officers and for the Electoral Board,” he said. “They will be issued a fresh ballot inside, because they can’t vote a mail ballot in the machine, and put that in the machine just like everyone else.”

If a voter requested a mail-in ballot and decides to vote in-person but does not bring the mail-in ballot with them, they’re going to have to cast a provisional ballot, which will be processed later.

Heilman said they are mostly caught up with processing returned mail-in ballots, and will process more on Tuesday.

When results begin to be reported, the absentee precinct will include both early in-person and mail-in ballot combined. Locally, Albemarle will break down the number and show the difference between early-in person votes and mail-in ballot votes.

The Electoral Board will not be announcing any updates on Wednesday, but on Thursday, it will report updated figures that will contain all of the mail ballots that come back from the drop boxes at the polling places, plus eligible mail-in ballots received after Nov. 3.

“Anything postmarked by Election Day and received by noon on Friday will be counted,” Heilman said.

Most provisional ballots will be tackled on Friday, and Heilman said the final report “might possibly come out Friday evening, most likely will come out Monday.”

For Evans, a precinct on Election Day is a metaphor for what needs to happen or could happen in other areas of society.

“I mean that in the sense that it’s a bipartisan group,” he said. “The design criteria says that we’re supposed to have an equal number of Republicans and Democrats working there, and so for one day, we have people from all political stripes who agree to put all that aside and work together on a common goal and to try and do things with integrity and a degree of jocularity.”

“…We’ve shared snacks together, we’ve joked together and talked about our family, and whatever, and it’s a relief to experience that just for one day.”

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