By Randy Arrington
LURAY, Sept. 14 — With early voting in the 2021 general election staring on Friday in Virginia, pressure is beginning to heat up on county registrars to ensure that the process is safe and secure. In other states, that pressure has risen to extreme levels, from messages of “watch your six” sent to election officials in Arizona to direct death threats received by a registrar in Milwaukee.
During the 2020 presidential election, numerous unfounded claims of election fraud and misinformation fed various conspiracy theories that have since been debunked.
“2020 damaged the confidence,” Page County voter registrar Carol Gaunt said last week of the election process.
Gaunt remembers the numerous phone calls her office received during the last election, and how her staff was berated by confused or ill-informed residents for a variety of “concerns.” The county registrar said she had received more Freedom of Information Act requests (FOIA) since the November election than she had received in the 14 years since she began her duties in 2007. In the days following the last election, Gaunt’s office received such questions as:
• Where can I go online and see my ballot? Ballots are still private. Voters don’t have to tell others who they voted for…that’s why voting booths used to have curtains. Also, unless they are signed (such as with mail-in ballots), individual ballots are not linked to individual voters after they have been fed into the voting machine.
• What font and size print was used on the ballots? While there are requirements about the size of the type on ballots to ensure that voters can easily read them, state election officials ensure those requirements are met before the ballots are even printed and reach local registrars. In addition, subsequent “tests” are held to make sure that everything, including the font size on the ballot, is ready for the election process.
• All data from the November election in XL spreadsheet format. A wide-sweeping request that violates the privacy of every voter who voted, and mandates that it be in a format that the registrar’s office can not accommodate. All election results are posted on the Virginia State Board of Elections website on the night of the election as they come in and are broken down by state, county and precinct totals. The election night totals are unofficial until the canvass is complete, which may take up to a week
• What is the paper weight of a single ballot? All ballots are produced in a uniform manner and checked prior to the start of the election.
One of the unfounded messages disseminated to the public in the days following the 2020 election was the “questionable” reliability of Dominion voting machines. The negative claims against the product have been debunked, and Dominion has even filed a defamation lawsuit to protect the company’s reputation.
Page County has utilized Dominion voting machines for more than 14 years. “Punch button” and “touch screen” machines were phased out several years ago, and now the electronic voting machines can read marked paper ballots in an any direction they are fed into the machine.
“They pre-date me. We’ve been using [Dominion] ever since I came to this job, and we just ordered three more,” Gaunt said during an interview with PVN one week before early voting was scheduled to begin. “I have full faith in Dominion voting systems. They have served us well for 14 years. We have never had a problem.”
Each Dominion voting machine is free-standing and is not connected to the internet. Each machine runs off of a flash drive that is programmed for each election. For Page County, Atlantic Election Services is the Virginia-based company near Richmond that performs that task. The voting machines have two flash drives — one is taken out to record and transfer data, the other is an administrative copy that remains in the machine as a back-up.
On Friday, Sept. 3 — two weeks before the start of early voting — members of the local electoral board, staff from the registrar’s office and representatives from both political parties (all candidates and party chairmen were notified as well) conducted an “accuracy test” on the voting machines. No problems were found.
On Election Day, and the days following it, the process works like this:
• Once the polls close, each precinct calls in results to the registrar’s office, who then enters those figures into the state system online. Initial figures are unofficial until the votes are canvassed.
• Each voting machine is then sealed, covered and locked. The flash drive is removed, sealed and sent to the registrar’s office. The voting machines remain in the precinct until a technician takes them out the next day.
• The day following the election, the votes are then canvassed, which basically means that a hard count is conducted and compared to the numbers the voting machine is reporting. Gaunt says this process used to take a single day, but can now take up to one week.
• Once the local canvass is complete, the final numbers are certified by the local electoral board. The registrar then uploads the results to the state system and generates a report called an “abstract of votes”.
• Two weeks after the election, the state board of elections convenes to then canvas all the votes again — rechecking numbers county by county, and precinct by precinct.
“That’s when we sit here and bite our nails for three to five days, waiting to hear we did everything right,” Gaunt said. “Once we hear everything is okay, we can go and enjoy Thanksgiving.”
The longtime registrar projects a turnout of about 46 percent in Page County during the upcoming election, which pales to the 70 percent voter turnout during last year’s presidential election. However, 45 percent of all ballots cast locally in that election were submitted early, either in person or by mail.
The more than 15,000 registered voters in Page County may begin voting in person for the 2021 election at 8:30 a.m. this Friday, Sept. 17 at the county government center.
“We encourage everyone to use the back entrance to the building,” Gaunt said, referring to the lower level of the three-story building behind the treasurer’s office. There will be a sign behind the building containing a phone number that voters may call if they need assistance in the parking lot. A drop box will also be available for mail-in ballots in the early voting room and in the registrar’s office.
Mail-in ballots will require a witness and their signature this year. That requirement was waived last year under an “emergency status” due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Those voting early in person will need to show a form of identification, but not necessarily a photo ID. While a student ID, military ID or driver’s license are the most preferred, a voter may also show a bank statement or utility bill that confirms their registered address.
The last day to register to vote in the 2021 election is Tuesday, Oct. 12 (the day after Columbus Day) by 4:30 p.m. in person at the registrar’s office or by 11:59 p.m. online. In-person voting will continue through Saturday, Oct. 30. In addition to its regular hours of 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, the Page County registrar’s office will also be open Saturday, Oct. 23 for in-person voting. Mail-in ballots will be accepted until the polls close on Election Day Tuesday, Nov. 2. The last day to request an absentee ballot is Friday, Oct. 22 (request by mail, fax or email).
While the election process used to last a few days or maybe a couple of weeks in years past, the local registrar’s office now conducts elections over a period of 60 days. For those who are still concerned about the process, the local registrar offers an opportunity.
“I accept offers of working the polls,” Gaunt said, noting the important role that poll workers play at the county’s five precincts each November.
Although she understands that voters want to make sure that their vote counts, Gaunt says there is no reason for concern in Page County. She says the election process is extremely secure with several layers of checks and balances that exist to correct any human errors that may occur.
“I vote here too…my staff votes here too…we know how the system works, and we know that it does work. That’s why I get so upset when people attack our staff and our volunteers…usually for things that are happening somewhere else,” Gaunt said. “I have no doubt that our systems are trustworthy. Virginia has a terrific record in elections…our numbers have always worked. Richmond has things in place to make sure everything is on track.”
ON THE BALLOT
~ NOV. 2, 2021 ELECTION ~
• Glenn Youngkin (R)
• Terry McAuliffe (D)
• Winsome Sears (R)
• Hala Ayala (D)
• Jason Miyares (R)
• Mark Herring (D)
Virginia House of Delegates – 15th District
• C. Todd Gilbert (R)
• Emily G. Scott (D)
Page County Board of Supervisors
• Chairman — Keith P. Weakley (R), unopposed
• District 1 — D. Keith Guzy Jr. (R), unopposed
• District 5 — Jeffrey P. “Jeff” Vaughan (R), unopposed
Page County School Board
• Megan L. Gordon (I)
•Jason Scott Breeden (I)
• District 1 — Thomas “Tommy” Lansberry (I), unopposed
• District 5 — Jackie A. Sullivan-Smoot (I), unopposed
Luray Council (special election)
• Stephanie L. Lillard (I), unopposed