Southwest Virginia Prepares For Special Election March 23

By Ashley Spinks Dugan

March 6, 2021

Longtime Southwest Virginia Sen. Ben Chafin passed away due to COVID-19 earlier this year. The election is for his seat.

TAZEWELL – In the event that a member of the Virginia General Assembly dies or resigns while the body is out-of-session, the governor calls a special election to fill the seat. That’s what happened following the untimely and tragic death of State Sen. Ben Chafin (R-Lebanon) from COVID-19 in January. Chafin joined the state senate in 2014 after winning a special election of his own. He represented parts of nine counties and two cities in Southwest Virginia.

Chafin was last re-elected in November 2019, capturing nearly 64% of the vote in his district. His four-year term was set to expire in January 2024. On March 23, Virginians in the 38th District can vote on Chafin’s replacement, who will fulfill the remainder of his term. But in reality, the special election kicked off months ago. 

Early Voting is Already Underway

The state Republican Party held a primary on Jan. 21 to select its nominee for the special election. Republican and Tazewell County Supervisor Travis Hackworth is running against Democrat Laurie Buchwald, a nurse practitioner and former Radford City Councilor. You can find Hackworth’s website here and Buchwald’s website here.

The last day to declare candidacy in the race was Jan. 22. Early voting began two weeks later.

“We started (early vote) on Feb. 5, so we’re well into that,” explained Tazewell County General Registrar Brian Earls during a phone call March 5. Tazewell County contains the largest share of the district’s voters—22%—out of the nine counties represented.

Earls explained that the county registrar’s office is open every weekday during normal business hours for voters who want to vote early in-person. The office will also be open on the two Saturdays prior to Election Day. Earls said office hours vary slightly from county to county, so residents should check ahead before attempting to vote. State law requires that registrar’s offices maintain business hours for eight hours per day, between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. 

In Pulaski County, home to the second-most District 38 voters, office hours are 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., said Pulaski’s General Registrar Kathy Webb. However, she said, all offices in the district are required to be open until 5 p.m. on a few key days. Mark these down. Offices are open until 5 p.m. on March 12, March 16 and March 20. These are deadline days—respectively, the last day to apply for a mail-in ballot; to register to vote and to vote early in-person. 

RELATED: State Senator Ben Chafin Dies From COVID-19 Complications

How Do I Vote?

So, voters in Virginia’s 38th Senate District can vote on Election Day or vote early in-person. They also have the option to vote by mail. Voters need to fill out an application requesting a mail-in ballot first. Those applications are due to local registrars by March 12. That deadline ensures localities have “time to get (the ballot) mailed to you and you have a chance to get it mailed back to us,” Earls explained. Mail-in ballots must be postmarked by Election Day and received by registrar’s offices by noon on March 26.

Voters who cast their ballots in-person should bring a photo ID with them to their polling place. 

And of course, to vote by any method, you’ll need to confirm that you’re registered. 

Who Can Vote?

Virginia’s 38th Senate District encompasses parts of nine different counties and two cities in Southwest Virginia. These include the cities of Norton and Radford, as well as parts of Tazewell, Pulaski, Russell, Buchanan, Wise, Dickenson, Bland, Smyth and Montgomery County. Voters can check whether they live in District 38 using a tool on the General Assembly’s website. 

According to Earls, voters can register in-person any time before 5 p.m. on March 16. They have until 11:59 p.m. that night to register online.

Earls emphasized that an extra group of voters is eligible to participate in the special election.

“Here’s a little extra tidbit I’ll throw in, for no extra charge,” Earls said cheerfully during a recent interview. “If you’re 17 now, but you will be 18 on or before the November election, you can go ahead and register now and be eligible to vote.”

Earls said he often gives presentations on the importance of voting to local high school government classes. “We always encourage younger kids to get out,” he said. “That’s by far the smallest percentage of voters and we like to encourage them to start early. If you start voting early, you tend to vote all your life.”

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Southwest Virginia Turnout Difficult to Predict 

Webb said it’s nearly impossible to predict how many folks will vote in the March 23 election, although turnout in such elections is typically low

“What I will say is this, we’ve not had a large number of people come in to vote early,” Webb said. On the other hand, she said, her office has mailed out “a good number” of mail-in ballot applications. 

Earls said standalone special elections are “pretty rare,” which makes prediction difficult. However, he added that Tazewell has a recent test case.

“Ironically, the last (special election) we had was in 2014, for this very office. That’s how Sen. Chafin got the seat,” Earls said. “For that one, we had right around 7,500 voters, which equates to somewhere around 20% turnout,” he added.

For a special election, Earls said, that’s not bad. He said non-presidential November elections tend to see about 35% turnout in Tazewell. Earls guessed that having a Tazwell native on the ballot in 2014 (Chafin’s Democratic opponent) helped drive interest in the election. The same is true for the March 23 election. Republican Travis Hackworth serves on the county’s Board of Supervisors.

“I think there’s always more interest within your locality to have one of your own on the ballot,” Earls said. 

Regular polling locations throughout the 38th District will be open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. on March 23. 

Ashley Spinks Dugan is a freelance reporter for Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected].

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