Concerns over COVID-19 drive people to vote early throughout Southwest Virginia.
BLACKSBURG – A week before Election Day, nearly 4,500 people have already voted in Floyd County. Those are big numbers for the Southwest Virginia hamlet, which houses less than 16,000 residents.
Floyd County General Registrar Amy Ingram said the county is “blowing records out of the water” this year—even for a locality with historically high voter turnout. In 2016, 72% of registered voters in Floyd made their voice heard. That same year, a total of 735 people voted early in-person, and only 371 by mail.
Likewise, in neighboring Montgomery County, voters flocked to early-voting locations in huge numbers. Asked how this year’s early vote turnout compares with 2016, Registrar Connie Viar said, “Oh gosh, this has crushed it.”
Viar said the availability of no-excuse early voting in Virginia likely contributed to increased turnout. Prior to this year, Virginia residents could vote absentee, but only after filling out an application and providing an excuse. This year, those who show up to an early-voting location—there are two in the county of around 100,000 residents—will act “just like Election Day,” she said.
As of Wednesday morning, 15,525 people had already voted in person in Montgomery County, which is home to Virginia Tech. The county also received thousands of mail-in ballots.
Virus helps drive early turnout
Voter turnout trends in Southwest Virginia mirror those nationally. According to NPR, early vote counts already exceed 2016 totals by more than 19 million.
Dan McMichael lives in Blacksburg and went to the New River Valley Mall to vote early. He aimed to avoid potentially large crowds at his normal polling place on Election Day. But the swell of voter participation surprised even him.
“If you had asked me a month ago, what did I think it was going to look like? I’m not super political, but I pay attention and read, and I’m on Twitter…I don’t know that I would have predicted this. It’s impossible to miss now,” McMichael said about voter turnout.
McMichael said he decided to vote at the mall after several of his friends mentioned the ease of the process.
“Literally, it took me longer to walk from my car [to the voting location] than it did to actually vote,” he recounted.
The convenience of early voting is one draw, Viar added. Another is concern about contracting coronavirus at the polls.
“I think it’s a mixture. There’s no long lines; it’s quick. But [people] do still have concerns about COVID,” Viar said.
While demographic information about early voters is not available, Viar did note one population in Montgomery County that so far is not taking advantage of early voting options: the students at Virginia Tech.
She said only 130 students have voted early in-person as of Wednesday. Local elections officials are concerned that the student population could overwhelm their polling locations on Election Day.
“There are two precincts on campus…our concern is that they’ll show up on Election Day; students like to vote late,” Viar said.
Floyd officials test drive-through option
In Floyd County, it’s possible early-voting options are more attractive because of concerns about the pandemic or accessibility issues at the polls. About 23% of county residents are 65 or older, and 9% are disabled. Elderly folks are particularly vulnerable to the virus.
In Floyd, local elections officials facilitated drive-through voting at the county courthouse. Beginning Sept. 18, volunteer poll workers set up camp every weekday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. under a big white tent in the parking lot. Bright orange cones and signage directed voters through the process of checking in, filling out their ballot from their car, and returning it in a privacy envelope.
Melissa Branks and her husband both took advantage of drive-through voting last week.
“It was easy—very easy,” Branks said.
She explained they both work somewhat irregular hours, and wanted to ensure their votes were counted in case of a time conflict on Election Day.
They, too, were concerned about social distancing and safety at the polls. “We are being very careful about coronavirus, and we just felt more comfortable voting from the safety of our car,” Branks said.
Regardless of any other circumstances, both McMichael and Branks said they voted because it matters. Branks spent much of her life outside America, and both she and her husband worked as election monitors in other countries. Elsewhere, she said, “it’s such a right for people to vote, and we just felt that we had to practice what we preach.”
McMichael said one reason he wanted to vote early was to clear his schedule on Election Day, so that he could volunteer at the polls. “Regardless of party, you should want everyone to vote,” he said.
Ashley Spinks Dugan is a freelance reporter with Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected].