The 2020 presidential election is now less than three months away, and registered voters in Virginia will be able to start casting their votes in just a matter of weeks.
Election officials in Virginia and states across the U.S. are busy preparing for what will be a very different run up to Election Day on Nov. 3, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and changes in voting requirements.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed an early voting measure into law earlier this year that allows registered voters to cast votes 45 days ahead of the election, with no need to provide a specific reason. Early voting will begin Sept. 18.
U.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who is the vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, discussed early voting and a wide range of election security issues this week with Northern Virginia election officials in Arlington.
“I think, generally speaking, because of good work of many of you in this room, our elections systems are more secure and prepared today than they were in 2016,” he said.
Still, Warner cited some areas of concern heading into the elections, including problems that have come up in several states during primaries.
In Maryland and elsewhere, voters who went to the polls in person sometimes had to wait in lines for hours. And, because of the surge in absentee and mail-in voting, there have been problems with getting ballots to voters in a timely manner.
“If we have more repeat of what we’ve seen during the primary season in the last number of months, where literally tens of thousands of ballots have been thrown out because they didn’t get delivered in time, that would be a travesty,” Warner said.
He said he also remains worried that only a handful of companies are responsible for helping states maintain their voter roll records. While security improvements have been made, he noted hackers could “create chaos” by getting into a system and changing information so that voters aren’t correctly assigned to their precinct.
Warner, whose Senate panel has done an extensive investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, said there’s no evidence that actual votes were altered four years ago. But he said it’s clear that Russia and other foreign countries, including China, are trying to spread disinformation on social media to create doubt in the U.S. election system.
The Democratic lawmaker said he believes the best possible defense against the tactics Russians employ is to have a well-informed American electorate that’s aware of the facts.
Warner and other Democrats have proposed spending $3.6 billion in the next major COVID-19 legislation to help states deal with mail-in voting, get protective equipment for election workers and other issues.
Republicans and the White House argue that the money isn’t needed, because states haven’t spent all that was allocated for elections by Congress.
White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany on Thursday called the Democrats’ proposal a “fundamentally unserious ask.”
She said states have only spent a fraction of more than $1.2 billion approved by Congress for election assistance since 2018.
As for early voting, Maryland has joined Virginia in allowing it, though it will be more limited than in the commonwealth.
The Maryland Board of Elections voted this week to allow early voting to take place between Oct. 26 and Nov. 2.
Maryland plans to have 80 early voting centers open across the state. They will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.