Masks will be strongly encouraged at Virginia polling places, but not mandatory

Masks will be strongly encouraged at Virginia polling places, but not mandatory
Desirée Charity casting an early ballot in person at the new Richmond registrar's office on Oct. 20. (Source: Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Virginia voters who show up on Election Day without a mask or visibly sick will be asked to put a mask on or cast their ballot outside the polling place, but they won’t be denied access if they refuse, according to state election officials.

At a virtual media briefing Tuesday on the state’s plans for a coronavirus-disrupted presidential election, Elections Commissioner Chris Piper said the state can’t prohibit anyone from voting if they insist on casting a ballot indoors without wearing a mask.

“If voters do not have a mask they will be asked to wear one and possibly could be offered a mask if there are extra and be offered the opportunity to vote curbside,” Piper said in a statement to the Mercury after the briefing. “Ultimately, a voter will not be turned away if they are not wearing a mask but the department strongly encourages them to do so to keep themselves and others around them safe.”

Election officials are planning to have stockpiles of masks at polling places, purchased with federal CARES Act funding.

Curbside voting is usually available for people 65 and older or those with physical disabilities, allowing them to cast ballots without leaving their vehicles.

Mask in polling places is a policy question officials have wrestled with across the country as they try to balance the need to make voting accessible to all with rules requiring masks to be worn in most indoor spaces.

Voters will not be asked to remove their masks to verify a photo on their ID, election officials said. Election workers will be allowed to temporarily remove their masks in order to assist voters who need to read lips.

Virginia law says it’s illegal for anyone inside a polling place to “hinder or delay a qualified voter.” Violations are punishable as a misdemeanor carrying fines of up to $2,500 and/or up to a year in jail.

On May 29, Gov. Ralph Northam signed an executive order mandating that face-coverings be worn in businesses, restaurants, entertainment venues, government buildings and “any other indoor place shared by groups of people who are in close proximity to each other.”

But since the beginning of the pandemic, Northam has stressed he’s not seeking maximum enforcement of social distancing policies and expects Virginians to voluntarily comply with public-health guidelines.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.