By Logan Bogert
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – As Virginia prepares for the November midterm elections, the State Board of Elections approved a number of policy changes aimed at clarifying the voting process and making ballots easier to understand.
On March 23, the board met for the first time since the Northam administration was sworn in. The panel unanimously voted to roll out new ballot standards for the Nov. 6 general election.
The goal of the standards is clarification - including allowing candidates to use nicknames, more readable fonts and user-friendly instructions on the ballots.
Each ballot will include instructions on how to vote. It will also state, "If you want to change a vote or if you have made a mistake, ask an election worker for another ballot. If you make marks on the ballot besides filling in the oval, your votes may not be counted."
Chris Piper, commissioner of the Virginia Department of Elections, said the process for revising the ballot standards began before last November's election, when one voter in Newport News improperly marked their ballot.
This led to a tie in the 94th House District race between Democrat Shelly Simonds and Republican David Yancey. During a special meeting of the State Board of Elections in early January, the names of both candidates were placed in a bowl and one was drawn; Yancey was declared the winner.
"The ballot standards were something that was targeted as one of the first things that needed to be looked at," Piper said.
He said the changes are "really designed to make the ballot standards document more user-friendly and easier to understand for the localities and the vendors who design ballots. It clarifies some things that had come up over the years – it wasn't in response to anything that happened in November, but certainly lessons learned went into the development."
The Department of Elections also ensures that each voting machine in Virginia is working properly.
The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law reports that more than 500 election officials in 41 states, including Virginia, indicated that they will use machines and computers that are more than a decade old in this year's midterm elections. That number is down from 2016, when the Brennan Center reported that 43 states used electronic voting machines that were at least a decade old.
"Every single machine that's deployed on Election Day goes through a thorough legit fix and accuracy test which provides the machines with a whole lot of different scenarios and makes sure that it's working as it should prior to deployment," Piper said.
In 2017, Virginia decertified paperless touch-screen machines, causing 22 localities to get rid of such devices and replace them. Currently, all localities in Virginia and all voters vote by voter-verified paper ballot. This ensures that there is a voter-verifiable paper audit trail for every vote cast.
"The determination of the Board of Elections is that a voter-verified paper ballot is the safest method to vote in the commonwealth," Piper said.
Beginning July 1, a new law will require the Department of Elections to annually conduct a post-election risk-limiting audit of ballot scanner machines in use in the commonwealth.
Piper said the State Board of Elections is working through those standards, but will soon provide "assurance to the public" that all elections are conducted properly and that the results "were accurate and the will of the public."
There are several ways to register to vote. Citizens can register on paper by printing off a form on the State Board of Elections website, in person at any office of the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles or directly on the website of the Board of Elections or the DMV.
Virginians also can register through third-party groups that conduct voter registration drives. Such activities have been a source of controversy in recent years. In January 2017, Vafalay Massaquoi of Alexandria was convicted of submitting fake voter registration forms while working for a progressive advocacy group, New Virginia Majority.
The following June, former James Madison University student Andrew Spieles was also convicted of fabricating voter registration forms while working for HarrisonburgVOTES.
Anyone who requests 25 or more voter registration forms is required to complete training on how to conduct a voter registration drive and receive a certificate that they've completed training. However, Piper said that certificate is for "the organization as a whole, not necessarily each individual."
After getting the certificate, the organization's representatives can distribute voter registration forms to prospective voters.
If registering to vote on paper, the newly registered voter should be provided with a receipt that is on the form itself that "provides contact information for the individual to follow up with them," Piper said.
According to the guidelines set forth by the State Board of Elections on conducting voter registration drives, completed applications must then be delivered to a voter registration office within 10 days of registering or on the day of the next election registration deadline.
Some third-party groups say Virginia makes it hard to vote.
Rock the Vote, the largest nonprofit and nonpartisan voter registration organization that works to build the political power of young people, lists Virginia as a "blocker state" in regard to voting. It notes that Virginia does not provide automatic or same-day voter registration. Virginia also requires voters to show a photo ID at the polls – a policy that Rock the Vote considers restrictive.
In addition to ranking states based on voting policies, Rock the Vote provides election reminders and information on upcoming elections aimed at millennials on its website.
"Young millennials will be the largest voting block this year," said Shaneice Simmons, Rock the Vote's civic engagement manager. "This generation is extremely socially and politically conscious."
The party primary elections will be held June 12. The deadline to register to vote in the primaries or update an existing voter registration is May 21, and the deadline to request an absentee ballot to be mailed is June 5.
"There is going to be so much on the table for young people to be able to create so much change this year," Simmons said. "It's just about making sure that we're not leaving it on the table – we're not allowing others to make decisions for us and electing people that represent our values."
The deadline to register to vote or update an existing registration for the Nov. 6 general election is Oct. 15. To request an absentee ballot to be mailed, requests must be received by 5 p.m. on Oct. 30. To request an absentee ballot by appearing in person, requests must be received by 5 p.m. on Nov. 3.