Virginia Ranks First in Early Voting Numbers

By Amie Knowles

October 5, 2020

State’s vote is well underway with more residents casting ballots.

ROANOKE – The numbers keep climbing. From Roanoke to Richmond and throughout the Commonwealth, voters are casting ballots. We’ve covered several of the places where crowds came out, especially in Fairfax County. And while some election officials expected the crowds to go away, they haven’t. As of Monday, Virginia ranked as the top state for early voting, with 645,538 ballots cast. Florida came in second, with 571,718.

Combine that with absentee/mail-in ballot requests and the number goes up to 1.395 million, as of Sunday night. By comparison, in the entire 2016 presidential election cycle, the state only had 538,410 requests for either option. The interesting part is that when you talk to local registrars, they say it’s not just COVID-19 driving the change.

Star City voting

Andrew Cochran, director of elections and general registrar in Roanoke, said his office “absolutely” saw an increase in early voting this year.

“To put things in perspective, in 2016, we had issued about 2,400 ballots and about 2,500 in-person voters,” Cochran said on Monday. “This morning, we just hit our 5,000-mark for in-person voting. We have issued over 10,000 ballots and about 2,000 of those have been returned.”

The registrar suspected the spike in numbers came from recent changes in Virginia’s law concerning absentee voting requirements. Virginians no longer need a witness’s signature before submitting their absentee ballot. They also no longer have to prove that they are unable to vote on Election Day.

“The codes went away effective July 1. With absentee voting, you used to have to complete an application in-person as well as by mail,” Cochran said. “So I’ve kind of gotten away from using the word ‘absentee’ altogether. So now we’ve got ‘vote by mail,’ and we have ‘early voting,’ which is in-person.”

He further expressed how the law change impacted the voters ahead of the election.

“When we had absentee voting, that required people to have a reason code or an excuse to vote early,” Cochran said. “And now that that excuse has gone away, a lot of people are taking advantage of that.”

Reducing absentee voting restrictions isn’t new. The idea wasn’t first sparked in March, when the commonwealth experienced its initial COVID-19 case, or when the laws passed in July.

“People were interested in that for many years. They just didn’t qualify. So now it’s an option available to all registered voters,” Cochran said. “I think that’s popular, and I think with COVID, that’s become particularly popular. The mail-in, especially, has been a very popular thing for voters.”

 An early experience

Cochran expressed confidence in his team’s pandemic preparedness efforts in poling places. The area had a prior pandemic voting practice earlier in the year. While the events went well, the experience also helped iron out any kinks before the national election.

“We had a trial run with a small Republican primary here in June, so we have extensive [personal protective equipment] in place and extensive protocols,” Cochran said. “It’s really changed almost the way we think about everything election-related.”

For the general election, Roanoke polling locations will have several precautions in place.

“We will have very large sneeze guards for our workers,” Cochran said. “We have all kinds of PPE for them.”

Those voting also have precautions.

“We do ask for voters to socially distance themselves and to wear masks. [The city has] touch-less hand sanitizer dispensers at the entrance and exit of every polling location,” Cochran said. “We just pay particular attention to anything that has to be touched, like a ballot. When people use hand sanitizer, we don’t want them to get their ballot wet, so we’ve spaced that out so that their hands are dry by the time they get their ballot.”

With voting well underway, the election’s heating up in Virginia.

“Things have gone very smoothly, even with the large numbers,” Cochran said. “I would encourage everybody to vote. You’ve got three different options this year, so I hope every voter will participate.”

Small town electorate

Patsy Burchett, registrar in Lee County, noted that the area also saw a large increase in early voting this year, compared to years past.

“It’s doubled right now,” Burchett said.

The uptick in voting before the election arose for two reasons, Burchett suspected.

“I think it is due to somewhat the virus, and then also with the change in law where anybody can vote absentee without an excuse,” Burchett said.

Whether voting early, requesting or submitting an absentee ballot or voting on Election Day, polling places in Lee County have extra pandemic precautions in place.

“We have the masks and then the clear Plexiglas,” Burchett said. “We have shields and we have gloves.”

For those voting early in-person, they’ll darken a ballot bubble for the candidate they vote for. They may also write in their own candidate. As an extra pandemic precaution, voters won’t pass around the same pen.

“They can either take their pen with them or leave it in a box,” Burchett said.

Even with the rise in early and absentee voting, she expected impressive numbers at the polls on the first Tuesday of November.

“I think we’ll have good turnout on Election Day,” Burchett said.

Anyone can request absentee ballots through Oct. 23. Early voting, meanwhile, continues through Oct. 31.

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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