Although Election Day is still a month away, last Friday’s start to early voting officially kicked the season into high gear.
In the COVID-19 era, Loudoun County General Registrar Judy Brown has just about had to throw out the playbook that’s guided her 35-year career.
“If I can do this [election] I can stay another 30 years; it can’t get any worse,” she said with a laugh.
The work Brown and her staff have put in just through the month of September has been unprecedented. The same day early voting began, Sept. 18, they mailed 57,000 ballots to Loudoun residents who have chosen to take advantage of mail-in voting in the year of COVID.
“That is more ballots than we’ve ever mailed for one single election ever,” Brown said.
Still waiting in storage are another 100,000 ballots that can be mailed as more requests come in.
The role that the U.S. Postal Service will play on the outcome of Election Day has many national pundits speculating about a delay in tallying the votes, or announcing final outcomes, or, worse yet, mailed-in ballots not making it in to be properly counted. Brown said she has been impressed thus far with the staff at Leesburg’s U.S. Postal Service, who personally came to her office last week to pick up the 57,000 mailed ballots.
“They are very cooperative, and of the mindset they are not going to be the cause of any controversy with ballots. They will do their part to see to it they are delivered,” she said.
Early voting began last Friday at the Office of Elections, located on Miller Drive in Leesburg. Brown said residents started a line more than 90 minutes before the office opened at 8:30 a.m. By the end of day one,1,659 early votes had been cast.
“It’s been interesting and fun,” Brown said about the opening day of voting. “And the thing is the way we’re set up we’re moving people through quite fast. It’s not that long of a wait. I think the search for a parking space is longer than the wait [to vote].”
She has received kudos from other people in the community for the smoothly run operation.
Elections staff members are preparing to open three more early voting locations on Saturday, Oct. 17—the Loudoun County Government Office on Ridgetop Circle in Sterling, the Dulles South Senior Center in South Riding, and the Carver Center in Purcellville. The Carver Center will be open only on the three Saturdays leading up to Election Day, while the other locations will have weekday and Saturday hours. The Leesburg Office of Elections will also remain open for early voting through Oct. 31. More information about early voting can be found at loudoun.gov/voteearly.
Brown said the elections staff’s statistics anticipate that anywhere from 50,000 to 75,000 residents may choose to go the early voting route to avoid lines or crowds on Election Day.
“Based on what we’re predicting for mailed [ballots] and early voting, half of the county will have already voted by Election Day,” Brown said. “That means Election Day will be similar to a regular, old election, not what we typically see in a presidential election.”
She credits her staff for all their work, and is particularly praiseful of Deputy Registrar Ricky Keech, who has been on top of implementing the technology for the upcoming election.
One of those technological advances is Ballot On Demand. When a voter checks in for early voting, Brown said, the computer tells the printer which ballot to print, so ballots can be printed on-site at the early voting locations as voters are checking in.
While there have been nationwide warnings about a shortage of poll workers on Election Day, Loudoun appears to be the exception. In anticipation of some poll workers having misgivings about working during the coronavirus pandemic, Brown said she and her staff began reaching out earlier this year to see who would still like to volunteer. They had to shut down the part of their website where new poll workers could sign up because of a surge in interest.
“We’ve gotten so many requests,” she said.
If after filling all the time slots for poll workers there are still some vacancies, they may reopen that section of the website for prospective volunteers.
In another unusual twist to this year’s elections, training for poll workers will be conducted via video, rather than in person.
One potential wrinkle could be those voters who show up for early voting or on Election Day wanting to cast ballots after previously requesting a mailed ballot. They may hand their completed mailed ballot to the election officer, but if they don’t present that, it gets more complicated. Per guidance received from the State Board of Elections, those voters will be asked to sign a form indicating they did not receive their mailed ballot. They would then be permitted to vote, Brown said. On the first day of early voting, about 30 residents showed up to vote at the Office of Elections after requesting a mailed ballot.
“That kind of thing is going to play into our Election Day voting … if a lot of people show up at a polling place who have asked for a ballot by mail it’s going to slow down the entire process,” she said.
It’s an issue the elections staff ran into already this year, during the June 4 Purcellville Town Council elections.
“A lot who had requested [a ballot] by mail showed up. In the Town of Purcellville, we were limited to the amount of people who could be in [a polling place] at once, so that kind of slowed the other people coming in. We started having a line, people waiting 20 minutes to come into the building. We’ll know more about that as we get closer to Election Day and know how many ballots have been returned by mail, and how many are left to come back,” she said.
Brown said she hopes those who requested a mailed ballot follow through with their original intentions.
“It’s disheartening to us to get ballots ready and in the mail and then [those who requested a mailed ballot] show up [to vote],” she said. “We put a lot of work into this. There were 30-plus people here for a whole week putting labels on envelopes to be able to make this work. There were days when I wasn’t sure but they pulled it off and it’s exciting to see everything going out.”
She recommends that anyone who came out to vote early after requesting a mailed ballot write Return to Sender on the unopened ballot envelope and place it back in their mailbox, or return it to the Office of Elections.
“The State of Virginia says if one who attests to not receiving [a mailed ballot] then sends in a marked ballot, we are to void the marked ballot,” Brown said.
For those satisfied with going the mailed-in ballot route, in addition to returning a completed ballot back by mail, residents are also able to bring their ballots to their polling place, or directly to the Office of Elections, Brown said.
Finishing the Count
Speculation has already begun about whether days or weeks could pass before final results on the Election Day races, particularly the presidential election, are confirmed. Brown said the first provisional ballot meeting is conducted by elections staff the day after Election Day, and an additional meeting two days later. The law now allows all ballots that are postmarked on or before Election Day, Nov. 3, and received by noon Friday, Nov. 6, to be counted “so we would not really be able to address provisional ballots related to people who were mailed ballots until Friday at noon,” Brown said.
Early voting ballots will be counted ahead of Election Day, however, because of a Virginia law that allows for the preprocessing of absentee ballots.
“We are already working on assembling a team to start Sept. 28 to work on preprocessing ballots. As the mail comes in, we will have people that will have to scan the ballots in as they are being received and then they get turned over to folks who are going to start the preprocessing of it,” Brown said.
These workers will go through a step-by-step process that includes verifying the information on the oath envelope; making sure the voter’s name and address matches the voter record; and ensuring the voter’s signature is visible. If all that information checks out, the ballot is removed from the envelope, unfolded, flattened, and fed through a high-speed scanner, new to the county office this year, that can read up to 100 ballots at a time.
Although the tabulation of early votes will help the elections staff with getting Election Day results out, Brown said she anticipates releasing results in two parts. Central Absentee Precinct (CAP) 1 results will include everything recorded via early voting, either in person or mailed, as well as all results recorded on Nov. 3 itself. Those results should be released sometime on Election Night, she said. CAP 2 results will include everything received after Election Day, which includes mailed ballots that come in by noon Friday, Nov. 6, and provisional ballots. The CAP 2 results could also include the ballots that were delivered to polling places on Election Day. Brown anticipates the CAP 2 results could be released by that Friday, or the following Monday, Nov. 9.