By Laura Vozzella,
RICHMOND — Voters will begin going to the polls Friday in this battleground state, where Republicans and Democrats continue wrangling over voter ID laws, and elections officials were warning Virginians to ignore “misleading” letters about their registration status.
Voters who cannot make it to the polls on Election Day may cast their ballots in person at their local elections offices starting Friday. In-person absentee voting continues through Nov. 5.
Virginia does not offer early voting to all voters, as some other states do. But it allows some people to vote absentee — either with mail-in ballots or in person — if they fit certain categories. Those include voters who will be away at college or on business trips and vacations, who have long commutes or religious obligations, are first responders or active-duty members of the military, or are in jail awaiting trial.
In-person absentee voting will be offered during weekday business hours, which vary across the state. That option also will be available on two Saturdays, Oct. 29 and Nov. 5.
The deadline to register or update an address ahead of the Nov. 8 election is Oct. 17.
On Thursday, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) announced a push to get Virginia high school students registered. Schools that register at least 65 percent of their voting-age students by April will receive a congratulatory certificate from the governor.
Earlier this year, McAuliffe declared the last week in April “High School Registration Week.” Nearly 2,500 qualified 17- and 18-year-olds registered that week in drives put on by students and teachers. As of late August, 48,832 of them had registered. The total number of high school-age voters in the state was not immediately available.
The governor’s challenge will officially kick off Tuesday, on National Voter Registration Day.
“It is important to teach younger Virginians that voting is a civic responsibility and encourage students to engage in the process by registering to vote,” McAuliffe said in a written statement.
As in-person absentee voting was set to begin, lawyers for both political parties and the state Board of Elections squared off Thursday in a federal appeals court in Richmond.
Democrats contend that Virginia’s requirement that voters present photo identification at the polls makes it harder for minorities and the poor to vote. Republicans say ID is needed to prevent fraud and errors.
Lawyers defending Virginia’s law say it is more lenient than those passed in other states, including a North Carolina law that a federal court recently deemed unconstitutional. In addition to driver’s licenses and passports, voters in Virginia may present college or employer IDs. They also can obtain a free voter identification card from a local election office without having to provide a supporting document such as a birth certificate.
Earlier this week, state elections officials announced that they had heard from “numerous” voters who had received letters “suggesting their voter registration status was in question.”
Edgardo Cortés, the state’s elections commissioner, said the mailings came from at least two separate organizations, America’s Future Inc. and the Voter Participation Center.
“Letters sent by these organizations have reportedly been addressed to individuals who were already properly registered, are not qualified to register at the mailing address used, or are deceased,” Cortés said in a written statement. “Although these letters include our street address and contact information, these letters did not come from the Department and are not official election mail.”
Cortés said voters can confirm their registration status through the Department of Elections.
Officials with America’s Future, a conservative group based in St. Louis, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Washington-based Voter Participation Center bills itself as nonpartisan but targets groups that tend to lean Democratic, including racial minorities, millenials and unmarried women.
Page Gardner, the center’s president, said that the group never intended to send registration forms to anyone ineligible to vote. She said any mistakes — such as registration forms sent to dead people or pets — represent “a very, very small percentage” of the group’s mailings, which numbered 500,000 in Virginia and 11 million nationwide.
“It is not our intent to send these in error,” she said.
Gardner said the center uses a commercial mailing list to target unregistered voters. The dead can wind up on a mailing list because it is compiled from things such as magazine subscriptions, which she said often are not updated with a new name when a family member dies. Some people also have subscriptions in the names of their pets.
The Voter Participation Center created a similar stir in Virginia during the 2012 presidential election by mailing registration forms to voters who had died or to pets. Those mailings raised fears of voter fraud in Virginia and led Republican candidate Mitt Romney to call for a criminal investigation.
His campaign said the forms violated state laws that prohibit falsifying a registration application and communicating false information to voters about their registration status. Gardner said no investigation was ever launched.