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Northam recommends moving municipal elections to November

Northam recommends moving municipal elections to November

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Gov. Ralph Northam recently announced that he is recommending postponing the May 5 municipal elections to November and delaying the June 9 congressional primaries by two weeks out of a concern about people voting in person during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Roanoke and New River valleys had several elections scheduled for May 5, but they would now happen Nov. 3, along with the presidential and congressional contests. The General Assembly will have to approve this proposal later this month when it reconvenes in Richmond.

“We are in the middle of a public health crisis,” Northam said April 8. “We have wrestled with our options, and none of them are ideal or perfect. Elections are the foundation of democracy, and voting is a fundamental right. But no one should have to choose between protecting their health or casting a ballot.”

Northam and the Virginia Department of Elections had been encouraging people to vote absentee to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at polling places. Electoral boards and registrars were concerned about the safety of voters who come to polling locations, about sanitizing machines and materials and about the participation of election officials, who are often seniors.

Local election offices had been reporting an uptick in requests for absentee ballots.

Absentee ballots will be discarded, and people will have to vote again in November. If people were not qualified to vote in May but will be qualified by November, they will be able to vote then.

Boones Mill and Rocky Mount each have three town council seats on the ballot. These are typically low-turnout contests, so shifting them to November would drive up votes for these seats.

Council members and candidates in the upcoming municipal election in Rocky Mount have reacted to the governor’s directive with “relief that there is finally some sense of movement,” said Assistant Town Manager Matt Hankins.

Concerns had been raised as to whether resorting fully to mail-in ballots for the May election would reduce participation, he said.

“We want everybody to participate,” Hankins said. “To the extent this gives more people the opportunity to participate, it is a good thing.”

Officials whose terms are set to expire June 30 will continue in office until their successors have been elected Nov. 3.

Northam said he will use his executive power to delay the June 9 congressional primaries by two weeks, to June 23. This will allow the election to take place after the stay-at-home order expires.

There’s a Republican Senate primary in June. There are no congressional primary contests in Western Virginia. Democratic voters will choose a nominee in the 5th Congressional District, which includes Franklin County and part of Bedford County.

Roanoke City Manager Bob Cowell said the local registrar’s office had started to evaluate the June primary in recent days, since polling locations, including libraries and schools, are closed.

Northam’s announcement came a day after Wisconsin held a presidential primary, forcing people to choose between following public health orders to stay home or stand in line for hours at polling locations.

Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, said in a statement that suspending the May elections, extending terms and discarding ballots “isn’t right.”

“The Department of Elections has rightly allowed universal absentee mail-in ballots to voters for weeks, and voters should continue to use that option over the next 27 days,” Suetterlein said. “The governor is under intense pressure, but any proposal to suspend elections and discard already cast ballots should trouble all Virginians.”

Reporters Mike Allen and Claire Mitzel of The Roanoke Times contributed to this report.

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