Gov. Ralph Northam said Virginians should be ready to wait a few days to find out results of November’s election, thanks to the unprecedented circumstances surrounding the vote.
He also outlined steps to prevent utility shutoffs and reacted to some of President Donald Trump’s recent actions and statements at a news conference Tuesday in Richmond.
Northam said new coronavirus cases in Virginia were averaging about 1,000 new cases a day statewide, and the percentage of tests coming back positive was at 6.8% — still higher than neighboring Maryland or D.C., but decreasing for 12 days in a row.
He added that restrictions in the eastern region that were imposed last month and lifted last week had helped cases, and positivity rates are down.
“It looks as if that plan worked quite well,” Northam said, but pointed out that southwest Virginia was now becoming a hot spot, with a seven-day average of 229 cases per day — the most of any region in the state, even Northern Virginia, which has more people and where people are closer together.
The percentage of positive tests in southwestern Virginia is 8.1%, also the highest in the state. Northam said he wasn’t prepared to impose new restrictions on the area yet.
The governor also said he has asked the State Corporations Commission to extend the statewide moratorium on utility shutoffs, scheduled to end Wednesday, until Oct. 5.
“This will give the General Assembly time to finalize the budget and address the issue” of people needing help with rent, utilities and other essentials, Northam said.
He added that his proposed budget includes a moratorium on shutoffs and help with expenses.
Northam also made another pitch for the COVIDWise smartphone app, which can send users notifications if they’ve come in contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus.
He said more than 500,000 Virginians have downloaded the app.
When asked how many had actually opted into the system, Health Officer Dr. Norman Oliver said that couldn’t be known, since, in response to privacy concerns, the state doesn’t track that information.
“We all know this will be an unprecedented election,” Northam said; the combination of a presidential election year and a pandemic “is something none of us has ever experienced.” And the demand for absentee ballots has also been unprecedented, he added.
So far, 790,000 requests have been received for absentee ballots by mail. Four years ago, 566,000 total absentee votes were cast in Virginia, half by mail, he said, adding, “We know that that demand will continue to go up.”
Northam ran through the process, reminding Virginia voters that anyone can vote absentee, or mail-in, which in Virginia is the same thing.
He added that, in a departure with previous practice, “You don’t have to provide a reason” for asking for a mail-in ballot.
Ballots will start to go out Friday, Northam said. Voters can still request a mail-in ballot by calling their local registrar’s office or by going to the Virginia Department of Elections website.
Once you’ve gotten your ballot, the governor said, you can mail it back — the return envelope is postpaid — or drop it off by hand, either at your registrar’s office, any satellite voting location or any polling place on Nov. 3.
A list of drop-off sites will be on your local registrar’s website; you can also call them and they’ll send you a list.
Each ballot envelope has a bar code, which you can use to track your ballot, and an electronic signature, which will identify ballots to postal workers so they can prioritize them.
Meanwhile, in-person early voting starts Friday and lasts until Oct. 31.
Northam said Virginia should be able to count votes relatively quickly, since state law permits elections officials to start counting absentee ballots when they come in, instead of waiting until Election Day to start, as is the case in some states.
Still, “everyone should be prepared to wait a few days” for results, Northam said. “It’s better to get an accurate count than a fast one.”
On a related note, Northam encouraged all Virginians to respond to the U.S. Census.
Census response rates have been mixed across the state, Northam said, and “It’s really important to make sure you are counted.”
He said every Virginian who isn’t counted in the census means $2,000 less for the state per year in federal funding. “That’s money and resources that we deserve, and we should get back in Virginia.”
Northam had strong words for Trump when asked about a pair of his recent comments: the taped conversation with journalist Bob Woodward where he acknowledged lying to Americans by “downplaying” the extent of the COVID-19 pandemic, and widely reported and confirmed comments in the magazine Atlantic calling American soldiers “losers” and “suckers.”
“I’ve said all along,” Northam, said, noting that the first coronavirus case in Virginia was more than six months ago, “that we are fighting a biological war.”
He added, “From the beginning, the governors have taken a responsible leadership position. … Unfortunately, what’s happened is it’s become political.”
He pointed to recent Trump rallies, including one in Nevada last weekend, held in opposition to local health restrictions.
“[Rallies] that are indoors, where people are congregating close together, no facial protection or very little — it just goes against the science and the grain of what we’re trying to do as Americans, and what we’re trying to do as states,” Northam said.
To get the pandemic under control, Northam said, is “in our hands; it’s in our behavior. So, when we have a president who ignores the science, and then goes against what even his consultants are telling him to do — it’s just defeating the purpose and it’s just very frustrating.”
As a former Army doctor who worked with wounded soldiers during the Gulf War, Northam also took exception to the president’s comments about troops.
“I consider them heroes,” Northam said. “I consider them the reason that I’m able to stand behind this microphone … and speak freely.”
He added, “When we have the leader of our country referring to people like me and others who have worn the uniform and some who have [died], to refer to them as ‘losers’ and ‘suckers’ — it just turns my stomach. As an American and a Virginian, I have trouble looking up to a leader, I have trouble respecting a leader, who refers to my fellow veterans in that manner.”
Northam connected the comments to the election: “This is why we have elections. And I encourage everyone in this country to exercise their right on Nov. 3, or prior to then.”
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