Reaching out: With much on the line, voter registration groups push through the pandemic

Tara Mincer works with Spread the Vote/Project ID, which helps underserved populations obtain all forms of identification, including voter registration. PC: Eze Amos Tara Mincer works with Spread the Vote/Project ID, which helps underserved populations obtain all forms of identification, including voter registration. PC: Eze Amos

By Carol Diggs

In each of Virginia’s last five national elections, voter registration around the state has surged anywhere from 6 to 10 percent. This year, coronavirus has made voter registration (like so many things) just a little harder.

Registering online, available throughout the pandemic shutdown, requires a Virginia driver’s license or DMV-issued ID—things that were hard to get when DMV offices were closed for two months. Even now, the earliest available appointment for driver’s licenses and IDs at the Charlottesville DMV is the end of October, despite voter registration closing on October 13. The other options are to register by mail, or in person at the registrar’s office; local registrars have stayed open for the most part, but hours at the Charlottesville office have been cut back through the end of August. 

Overall, early indicators suggest that the area will feel some election-year registration bumps. Applications have been increasing since March, says Melissa Morton, the City of Charlottesville’s director of elections and general registrar. Nelson County Director of Elections Jacqueline Britt says her office has handled more than 1,500 requests for new registrations or address changes in the last five months. In Greene County, according to registrar Jennifer Lewis-Fowler, voter registrations are actually outpacing the same period in 2016.

Still, the pandemic has hampered efforts by both local governments and nonprofits to expand registration among young people and the underserved.

Visits to high schools and nursing homes, and registration drives at libraries and city events, have been curtailed. Charlottesville’s Morton cites one of many examples: “Our office and the Albemarle County registrar’s office usually partner to do a drive at UVA, but we haven’t heard from the university—although some fraternities and sororities have expressed interest.”

The League of Women Voters, a major player in voter education, usually has volunteers setting up registration tables at neighborhood association events, swimming pools, farmers’ markets, grocery stores, and shopping malls—all difficult if not impossible in this contactless environment.

Sue Lewis, voter services chair of the League’s Charlottesville Area chapter, says her group is working on ways to promote registering early, especially for those who plan to vote by mail. But she admits that in the midst of COVID-19, with no public events, large gatherings, or even people strolling on the Downtown Mall, “how to reach people is a real conundrum.”

Spread the Vote/Project ID focuses on helping underserved populations obtain all forms of identification, including voter registration. Tara Mincer, co-lead for the Charlottesville chapter, says her group holds weekly drives in the parking lot of Loaves & Fishes, and works closely with both the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail and Piedmont House to help former inmates and homeless voters. But it’s challenging. “Our volunteers can’t even safely offer to drive people to the registrar’s office or the DMV,” Mincer says.

Virginia Organizing, a nonprofit focused on helping underserved populations make their voices heard, has tried to find creative ways to work within social distancing.  Amanda Dameron, the organization’s representative for central Virginia, runs a weekly Zoom training (open to all, it’s been averaging five-10 people a session) for people who want to assist in local or neighborhood voter registration. Dameron says the pandemic has forced her group to concentrate on disseminating information rather than in-person outreach. “We’re asking our volunteers to tap their personal networks, use their social media and phones, to spread the word and make sure that everyone has a plan for how to register and how to vote.”

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Voting in Virginia: the basics

With recent changes in election laws, the pandemic, and the U.S. Postal Service upheaval, there’s a lot of misinformation circulating. Here’s what you need to know:

How can I register, or check my registration? The easiest way to register, update your address, or transfer your registration from another state is online, via the Citizen Portal. You will need either a valid Virginia driver’s license or a Virginia DMV-issued ID.  If you don’t have either, you can fill out an application
form (available online, by mail, or in post offices and many state agencies) and submit it by mail, or in person at your local registrar’s office. Registration applications must be received by the registrar’s office or postmarked by 5pm on October 13.

How can I request a vote by mail ballot? Once you are registered, you have until October 23 to request a vote by mail ballot (online or by mail, email, or fax).

When is the deadline to submit a vote by mail ballot? Your ballot must be postmarked by November 3 and received by the registrar’s office by noon on November 6—so mail early! Alternatively, you can deliver your ballot (in person or curbside) at your local registrar’s office by 7pm on November 3. Be prepared to show identification, and note that the registrar’s office cannot accept a ballot from a third party.

What about voting early? You can vote in-person absentee at your local registrar’s office from September 19 through October 31. You don’t
need to provide a reason.

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