Voting Under Pandemic Pressure: COVID-19 Changes Election Processes, Voter Plans

I-Team explores how some communities have adapted 

As COVID-19 cases surged this spring, Pastor Delmar Wright with the Greater Victory Christian Church near Jefferson, Virginia, canceled in-person services for the rest of the year. But that hasn’t stopped him from urging his congregants to vote this fall, no matter what.

“I tried to educate them about the importance of voting and making sure to do it early,” Wright told the News4 I-Team in an interview outside of his rural church, located in one of the most competitive U.S. House districts in the country. There, Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger faces a tight reelection contest against Republican Del. Nick Freitas. “No matter who you vote for, I tell them to vote,” Wright said.

Over in Jefferson, Maryland, a small town in Frederick County, Dr. Laura Kaler is the town dentist and owns the local ice cream shop. But with the pandemic looming over the election, she added another line to her resume by training to become a poll worker.

"In the precinct that we normally vote in, the election judges traditionally have been some of the older members of the community,” Kaler said. “I was worried that maybe they'd be a little more reluctant to come out this year."

And in Jefferson County, West Virginia, where early voting kicked off last week, Charles Town resident Latisha Carr said she’s encouraging friends and family to develop a plan if they’re heading to the polls. She’s part of voter outreach groups that help voters across the country get registered and prepare to cast their ballot

“It doesn’t matter who you’re voting for,” Carr said. “It’s important you do your civic duty and have a plan to do so this year.”

The I-Team traveled to three similarly-named communities across Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia this month to see how they’re preparing for voting in a pandemic. 

Across the board, voters and elections officials said they’ve adjusted their plans, from training new poll workers to manage a surge in absentee ballots, to navigating mail-in and early voting, to devising new ways of voting entirely, such as drive-through voting. 

In Virginia, where early voting began in mid-September, the state legislature expanded early and absentee voting by allowing anyone to vote absentee.

“Before, only a select set of people could vote because of a particular reason,” said Powhatan County Director of Elections and Voter Registration Karen Alexander. “Now, anybody can vote for any reason. It’s fantastic, but it completely changes the game.”  

It doesn’t matter who you’re voting for. It’s important you do your civic duty and have a plan to do so this year.

Charles Town resident Latisha Carr

Alexander said those sweeping changes to elections laws, combined with the pressures of the pandemic, caused her county to get creative. To safely serve voters, Powhatan County opened a drive-through early voting polling place behind an old school building that now serves as a county office complex. 

Alexander said her county received federal funding through the CARES Act to help pay for the changes. Now, voters drive up, show their identification to prove they’re a registered voter and are then given their ballot in a privacy folder “with a pen that’s never been touched.” The process takes about three minutes, she said. 

“We needed to make it accommodating to voters,” she said, adding she expects at least 40 percent turnout before Election Day. 

Across the board, states are seeing surges in by-mail and early voting, prompting election officials to boost staff in order to process the ballots. Elections officials also expect record turn-out at the polls on Tuesday. 

Stuart Harvey, who heads Frederick County’s elections in Maryland, said his county increased its roster to 450 workers, including standby judges, to prepare for both high turnout as well as last-minute absences. 

West Virginia elections spokesman Donald Kersey told the I-Team that, after the state loosened its policies for the 2020 election to allow people concerned about COVID-19 to vote by mail, it expects a tenfold increase in mail-in votes. Kersey added the state is using federal financial aid to help counties pay for the additional costs of labor and supplies.

But Carr, the Charles Town podcaster and voting activist, said many in her circle plan to vote in person because of concerns with mail-in voting. Though some political leaders have cast doubt on that process, without evidence, she said many in her circle are afraid of more benign mistakes. 

“People are concerned their vote is not going to count for some reason. Maybe they’ll fill out the mail-in ballot incorrectly,” she told the I-Team.

Early voting began there last week, with long lines stretching out of the Jefferson County Courthouse in Charles Town as a mix of masked and unmasked voters waited to cast their in-person ballot.

Wright, the Virginia pastor, said his congregants have almost all taken advantage of early voting. He said he hasn’t advocated for any particular candidate or party, just the simple act of casting a ballot. 

“I believe that when an individual votes, they do not really cast a ballot for an individual,” he said. “They actually cast hope for the future.”

Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Katie Leslie, and shot and edited by Evan Carr and Steve Jones.

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