Gov. Ralph Northam is trying to reassure Virginians that voting by mail is safe and that election security is a top priority for the state.

The Democratic governor made the comments Tuesday while highlighting steps the state is taking to protect absentee voting during the coronavirus pandemic, which include using drop boxes for early voting and putting barcodes on absentee ballot envelopes to track when they are delivered.

“We all share the priority of ensuring free and fair elections,” Northam said.

His comments come amid a sustained effort by President Donald Trump to attack the integrity of mail voting.

Virginia is one of several states offering ways for voters to verify the status of their ballot online. The Virginia Department of Elections' citizen portal shows when an absentee ballot request has been received, when a ballot has been sent and when the ballot has been received by a local election office. Lawmakers also recently approved Northam's proposal to spend $2 million for prepaid postage for all absentee ballots.

Northam said so far 790,000 people have requested absentee ballots, which will start going out on Friday. He said in the 2016 presidential election, there were a total of 566,000 votes cast absentee.

Hillary Clinton defeated Trump in Virginia by more than 200,000 votes in that election, and the state is not considered to be competitive this year.

Northam also said Tuesday that the state is making progress in combating the coronavirus, though he said he is carefully monitoring trends in the state's southwest, which has a relatively higher level of positive cases as a percentage of the number of tests given. Northam said he's concerned because the largely rural area doesn't have as many hospitals as other parts of the state, but he said he isn't currently planning on imposing restrictions to the area.

Virginia has reported more than 135,000 cases of COVID-19 and at least 2,839 deaths caused by the virus.

At Northam's request, the Virginia State Corporation Commission has agreed to extend a moratorium on utility disconnects for unpaid bills until next month.

The commission said in a news release Tuesday that the moratorium, which was set to end Wednesday, will now be extended through Oct. 5. The latest extension means the moratorium, which began on March 16, will be in place for more than six months.

The commission said it will not extend the moratorium beyond Oct. 5, and urged the governor and General Assembly to appropriate funds for direct financial assistance to customers who are unable to pay their bills due to the pandemic.

“We hope the General Assembly uses this additional time to act on this recommendation," the commission said.

The governor has asked lawmakers to require Dominion Energy, the state’s largest electric company, to cover unpaid residential electric bills with $320 million that regulators say the company previously overcharged.

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Go to Loudoun.gov/Vote for more local voting information.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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