Lending a Hand: Chesapeake, VA Library Staff Step Up to Assist With Mail Ballots

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Election offices across the country facing increased demand for mail ballots are searching for help to process the mountain of requests and ballots from voters – and in Chesapeake, VA that help is coming from staff at the local library. The Virginian-Pilot has more:

In a typical municipal election, roughly 1,000 voters mail in absentee ballots in Chesapeake. This year, that’s about how many envelopes are arriving every day at the city’s Voter Registrar’s Office in advance of the May 19 elections.

Meanwhile, Chesapeake’s public libraries are closed to the public. While staffers are still busy with virtual projects and planning an eventual phased reopening, they saw a way to step up.

For several weeks, three employees at the Central Library have helped prepare absentee ballot packets, stuffing each with two pages of voting instructions and a self-addressed, stamped return envelope. Another three to five are at the registrar daily, placing ballots in those packets to seal and send, sorting submitted ballots into one of 63 precincts, and answering phones.

“They are priceless to us,” says general registrar Mary Lynn Pinkerman. “We absolutely could not have done this without them.”

Virginia is encouraging mail voting for the May 19 local elections as well as the June 23 statewide primary – and if demand is any indication, voters are taking the encouragement. That’s a challenge for local election offices who don’t have access to the same staffing they usually use in these situations:

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all voters are authorized to vote absentee if they select the “my disability or illness” option, with encouragement from Gov. Ralph Northam and election officials. Pinkerman predicts Chesapeake’s final absentee count will surpass the approximately 17,000 ballots typically mailed for a presidential election.

For those national contests, however, local offices have lined up and scheduled extra election officials well ahead of time. Beyond the current time crunch, many of the volunteers are older and not comfortable leaving their homes.

Library staff are a natural fit for the work because of their typical focus on serving the public:

A partnership between the registrar and library system was natural, given that several libraries act as polling stations, according to Zachary Elder, Central Library manager. Elder is among the employees now sworn in and trained as an election official at the registrar’s office.

“Librarians love serving the public, and this is another way we can do it,” Elder says. “It’s been exciting and a bit challenging, but every absentee ballot that comes in is one person who is a little safer. We’re also protecting our election poll workers — really all of our residents.”

Staff are pitching in on a whole range of tasks, from preparing mailings to answering residents’ questions about the voting process:

Chesapeake’s May 19 election, originally scheduled for May 5, features mayor, city council and school board races. Required work includes alphabetizing each ballot by precinct to file in large mailing boxes. While the registrar can check off voters’ names and do some preprocessing work, votes aren’t officially counted until Election Day.

“We want everyone’s vote to count, no matter how crazy this time is in our city and our country,” Elder says, adding that employees are following health department guidelines for handwashing and physical distancing.

Librarians also have helped field questions about how to vote absentee and the deadline to request a ballot, which is now May 12.

Leaders in both offices seem ready to continue the partnership if the need is ongoing:

“They are very fast learners,” Pinkerman says. If her office remains closed leading up to the scheduled statewide congressional primary June 23, she hopes the two agencies could partner again.

Library leaders say they’d be happy to answer the call. “Our departments should always help each other out,” Elder says. “We’re all part of one city, and there was no way they could do this on their own. They were just getting deluged.”

With so much bad news and frustration in the election community these days because of the challenges posed by COVID-19, it’s really gratifying to see local public servants work together to ensure that elections go forward. Kudos to everyone involved in Chesapeake and anywhere else local public servants are stepping in to lend a hand to make voting work. Stay tuned …

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