Gov. Ralph Northam has postponed Virginia’s June primary and requested the General Assembly postpone May municipal elections.
The announcement on Wednesday threw uncertainty into the campaign for Scottsville mayor and Town Council and further complicated an election burdened by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Scottsville’s elections are scheduled for May 5. Central Virginia also was scheduled to have a Democratic primary for the 5th Congressional District and the Republican primary for one of Virginia’s seats in the U.S. Senate on June 9.
Under state law, Northam can postpone an election by 14 days without approval from the legislature.
Northam is asking the General Assembly to move the May elections to November. The General Assembly would have to consider such legislation during the veto session on April 22, less than two weeks before voters would head to the polls.
“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,” Northam said in a press release. “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.”
Northam’s announcement comes the day after Wisconsin was criticized for holding its presidential primary amid the ongoing pandemic.
“Free and fair elections are at the core of our democracy and no Virginian should have to choose between their health and exercising their right to vote,” Attorney General Herring said in a press release.
Under Northam’s plan, voters who were not qualified to vote in May, but qualified for November, would be able to vote.
Local registrars already have sent out and received absentee ballots for the May elections, but Northam’s plan would require those ballots to be discarded.
Albemarle County Registrar Jake Washburne said that the announcement puts the May election in limbo until the General Assembly acts.
“I can’t just put the brakes on issuing absentee ballots because I think the legislature is going to jump one way,” he said.
Northam’s plan would extend the terms of officials set to expire on June 30 through the election.
In-person absentee voting for the June primary was scheduled to start on April 24, but will likely be delayed to May 8. The state hasn’t given guidance to local registrars, Washburne said. Charlottesville Registrar Melissa Morton said that she’s waiting for guidance from the state on changes to any primary election deadlines.
The Charlottesville Electoral Board was already wrestling over the issues of the June election during an electronic meeting on Tuesday.
The board met to begin preparations for the primary, including printing ballots. However, predicting the number of ballots was a challenge.
“This is going to be an extremely difficult election to predict the turnout,” said board member Jim Nix. “I think what we need to do is postpone any thought about election day voting and just focus on the absentee by-mail.”
Board chair Anne Hemenway said that the city had received 320 Democratic and 20 Republican absentee ballot requests for the primary.
The Virginia Department of Elections has recommended that voters use absentee voting by mail in May municipal elections, but hasn’t made a statement on the June primary.
“We have to proceed as if this is going to be a regular election because we have got no direction otherwise,” Hemenway said.
One issue of concern caused by the city’s response to the pandemic was the use of Key Recreation Center as a precinct. The city has opened the center to The Haven as a shelter for homeless men.
Officials weren’t sure that the center would be available for voting if it was still being used as a shelter, but Hemenway said it would remain the polling place.
Morton said that officials are considering plans to maintain social distancing between voters at Carver Recreation Center and the Tonsler Recreation Center. Other measures throughout the city will include face masks for election officers and additional protective gear that can be used upon request.
Election officials also plan to ask voters to hold out their IDs, rather than take them for inspection at the polls.
In the June primary, four candidates are seeking the Democratic nomination for Congress: R.D. Huffstetler, a Charlottesville entrepreneur who unsuccessfully ran for the same nomination in 2018; John Lesinski, a retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel who previously held local offices in Rappahannock County; U.S. Marine Corps veteran Claire Russo and Dr. Cameron Webb, a physician at the University of Virginia Medical Center.
Rep. Denver Riggleman, R-Nelson, is seeking his second two-year term for the district, which stretches from Fauquier County to the North Carolina border, and includes Charlottesville and Albemarle County.
He will be challenged at a convention by Bob Good, an athletics official at Liberty University.
The Republican primary will feature Alissa Baldwin, a civics teacher in Nottoway County Public Schools; Daniel Gade, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel from Mount Vernon; and Thomas Speciale, a U.S. Army reservist from Woodbridge.
Whoever wins the primary will face U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., in November. Warner, a former Virginia governor and vice chair of the Senate intelligence committee, is seeking his third six-year term.
In Scottsville, the mayorship and all six seats on Town Council are up for grabs.
Mayor Nancy Gill, who has served 12 nonconsecutive years in the town’s government, and Joshua Peck, who has served for four years, are not seeking re-election and, under Northam’s plan, would stay in office through November.
Charlotte Staton-Joyner and Ronald Smith are running to succeed Gill.
Incumbent Councilors Edward Payne Jr., Stuart Munson, Daniel Gritsko, Laura Mellusi and Zachary Bullock are seeking re-election. Matthew Thacker and Jim Tocci are also seeking a seat on the council.