Gov. Ralph Northam announced Wednesday he is moving Virginia’s congressional primary from June 9 to June 23, and he is suggesting that localities postpone their May elections until November.
“We are in the middle of a public health crisis,” Northam said. “We have wrestled with our options and none of them are ideal or perfect. Elections are the foundation of democracy. And voting is a fundamental right.”
Local boards of elections have already established no-excuse absentee voting in response to COVID-19, allowing the new rules for mail-in and early ballots two months before the recently approved General Assembly bill goes into effect on July 1.
Virginia reported 312 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday morning, bringing the total number of confirmed cases up to 3,645. State and private labs have processed 30,645 tests while hospitals have reported 75 deaths and 615 hospitalizations.
The Lord Fairfax Health District reported eight new cases Wednesday, bringing the total number to 88 cases: 46 in Frederick County 15 in Winchester, 13 in Shenandoah County, eight in Warren County, three in Page County, and three in Clarke County.
Experts have predicted that cases in Virginia will peak around April 20 and the percentage increase for the state between Tuesday and Wednesday – 9.36% – is closely aligned with the Lord Fairfax Health District’s at 10%.
While the valley continues to work on addressing COVID-19 interfering with everyday life from running small businesses to finding child care for children who would normally be in school, town governments have a new issue to address. Northam does not have the power to unilaterally move the local and special elections slated for May 5 more than two weeks away so he asked members of the General Assembly to consider moving those dates when they reconvene later this month.
State lawmakers will take up dozens of pieces of legislation in addition to re-working a state budget that projected increased revenues and spending on programs that Democrats have been fighting for against the tide of entrenched Republican leadership.
Democrats came out in full support of Northam’s request, emphasizing the public safety threat that large gatherings pose.
“Everyone in Virginia needs to be able to vote as safely as possible this year, and Governor Northam made the right call by postponing these elections,” Democratic Party of Virginia Chair Susan Swecker said in a statement. “We're all in this together, and we know that Covid-19 doesn't care if you're a Republican or Democrat, everyone is at risk. All of us in Virginia should listen to the advice of doctors and public health experts, the safety and health of everyone comes first."
Tackling ease of access for voting was on the Democratic agenda from day one of winning back control of the state in November but moving elections comes as an unforeseen action that is likely to receive some level of bipartisan support.
Del. C. Todd Gilbert, R-Mount Jackson, the House minority leader, said Republicans are in favor of postponing the May elections but questioned whether the date needs to be pushed out to November.
“Given his stay-at-home order, Governor Northam’s decision to push the June primary back by two weeks is a common-sense precaution. Virginians should be able to cast their ballot in person without worrying about their health,” Gilbert said in a statement to the Northern Virginia Daily. “That being said, we hope to work with the Governor and his party to come up with a better solution for May’s town elections, such as holding them in conjunction with the June 23 primary. Delay is prudent, but pushing these elections back by six months may be unnecessary if Virginia is able to hold elections safely on June 23.”
Lisa McDonald, the Shenandoah County registrar, said that when she heard the news about moving elections back on Wednesday afternoon she told her staff to stop processing absentee ballot applications. If the election is postponed, Northam said, all ballots that have been filed will be discarded and voters will have to re-cast their votes.
McDonald said all of the absentee votes her office has are in a fire-proof safe and are being held until election day. If election day moves from May 5 to June 23 or Nov. 5, her office will have to re-do months of work getting people enrolled for absentee voting.
Until the General Assembly reconvenes — another logistical problem facing the many hundreds of delegates and senators attempting to conduct business during a time of social distancing — voters and registrars will wait in limbo.