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Witnesses aren't needed for absentee voting in Virginia. But the instructions sometimes say otherwise.

Some Virginia voters who received absentee ballots by mail this week were left scratching their heads at the included instructions, which told them they didn't need witness signatures this year to make their ballots count - but, if they wanted their ballots to count, they needed witness signatures.

Virginia voters do not have to have a witness signature on their absentee ballots this fall.

State and local elections officials acknowledged the problem, but pointed to late changes to Virginia law eliminating the commonwealth's long-standing witness-signature requirement for absentee voting this year as a reason for the confusion.

This fall's election season, which comes during a pandemic and features an important presidential race, several tight congressionalraces in Virginia and uncertainty about the ability of the U.S. Postal Service to deliver ballots on time, has also prompted huge early-voting lines. And Northern Virginia communities are seeing an unprecedented number of requests for absentee ballots.

Voter Nan Alvord, 85, of Manassas Park, who voted by mail for 15 years in Oregon, called what she received from her local elections board this fall "nutty instructions." Another voter, Joel Ferris, 70, of Alexandria, noted that "despite my master's degree and a lifetime of voting, I had to read the entire letter a couple of times to sort out this information."

The state Department of Elections sent out multiple versions of its preferred language, local registrars said. As the General Assembly's special session progressed from its Aug. 18 start through September, the governor signed some bills on absentee voting into law, and the administration settled a lawsuit brought by the League of Women Voters over the signature matter.

Cities and counties print their own ballots and can create their own versions of voter instructions based on the state's ever-evolving guidance in the weeks before the election.

"It's not as clear as it should be, no question about that," said Bob Brink, chair of the state board of elections, said of the commonwealth's voter instructions. "We hope that [voters] will turn to a combination of the department's instructions on our website and instructions to call their local registrars. I hope that will alleviate any confusion."

The language instructing absentee voters how to cast their ballots varies between among cities and counties because some local registrars edited the commonwealth's wording, while others did not.

"To ensure your ballot is counted, read these instructions!" reads the form sent out by the cities of Manassas Park and Alexandria. "Except as provided below, the law requires a witness must be present for steps 1 through 3 listed below. Any person can serve as your witness. If you believe you may not safely have a witness present while completing the absentee ballot for the November 3, 2020 election, you are not required to have a witness present for steps 1 through 3 listed below. Accordingly, you may disregard the witness signature line on envelope B if you believe you may not safely have a witness present while completing your ballot."

But later on the page, the instructions say a witness is required.

Alexandria registrar Angie Maniglia Turner and Manassas Park registrar Patricia Brendel said they followed the state's guidelines. Turner said she has received more inquiries about whether voters need to add postage stamps to their return ballot (they don't). Brendel said that, in hindsight, the language of the instructions could be clearer.

Gary Scott, the Fairfax County registrar noted there was not only a lack of time to rewrite the instructions, but a lack of space - Fairfax prints the instructions in English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Korean. He acknowledged that confused voters have contacted his office about witnesses, although he removed references to a witness signature on everything but the return envelope.

Unless voters closely follow the news, or research the language in the ballot instructions, they still may not understand that the witness requirement has been dropped, he said, especially if they struggle with English.It's important, he said, that all voters understand how to cast a ballot.

"The person who is barely literate in their second language is just as important, and his vote counts as much, as someone with multiple PhDs," Scott said.

Gretchen Reinemeyer, Arlington County's registrar, said she provided that county's absentee voters - 50,000 so far - with a simpler set of instructions than what the state suggested, "because I thought it was confusing."

"There's been so much to do this year that I don't fault anyone at the [Virginia] Department of Elections for this," she said.

While Arlington's instructions don't say voters must have a witness for their ballot to count, the mailing, as in Fairfax, includes a line on the return envelope that erroneously said a witness signature was still required.

Joan Porte, vice president of the Virginia League of Women Voters and an Arlington resident, said she was furious when she saw the error on the envelope, which could have been solved, she said, by crossing it out with a marker.

"Why did we file a lawsuit? " she asked. "I was seeing orange when I got mine. I literally stood in the middle of the living room and screamed, 'I don't believe this!' "

Alvord, the former Oregonian who now lives in Manassas Park, said she figured out the rules after spending some time thinking about it.

"I'm quite sure we don't need a witness but I don't want to take a chance," Alvord said. "I think this whole business of a witness is craziness. . . . This whole process may have been adequate last century, but it just isn't anymore."

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