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GOP-leaning parts of Va. quicker to cast absentee ballots

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RICHMOND — Voters in the battleground state of Virginia have been casting absentee ballots at a faster clip in Republican-leaning parts of the state than in Democratic territory, according to an analysis released Friday.

Absentee voting has been slowest in areas that President Obama won four years ago and most brisk in places captured by his 2008 Republican rival, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, according to preliminary state election data reviewed by the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project.

The disparity could be an indication of higher enthusiasm among Republican voters as neck-and-neck races for president and U.S. Senate come down to their final weeks, some political observers said.

But the observers also cautioned not to read too much into the findings, in part because absentee ballots usually make up a small share of total votes cast. The number turned in so far is smaller still.

Four years ago, about 500,000 of the nearly 3.8 million votes cast were by absentee ballot. So far, 60,612 absentee votes have been cast. Absentee voting runs through the Saturday before the Nov. 6 election.

“It’s consistent with what some of the polls are showing in terms of enthusiasm, but I wouldn’t see it as any kind of definite indicator of what’s happening yet,” said Bob Holsworth, a former Virginia Commonwealth University political scientist. “It’s a small percentage of a small percentage of the vote.”

Stephen J. Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington, raised the same concerns but also did not completely dismiss the possibility that the absentee voting patterns suggest something: “That voters in Republican-leaning precincts in Virginia can’t wait to vote against Obama.”

VPAP itself noted that some jurisdictions may take longer to forward absentee voting totals to state elections officials, making voting look slower than it is.

Virginia does not have early voting, open to any voter, but offers absentee voting, an option only for those who cannot make it to the polls on Election Day for certain reasons, such as military service, jury duty or a long commute.

That distinction may be getting lost. A tour bus dubbed the “Commit to Mitt Early Vote Express” has been rolling through the state on behalf of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, urging supporters to “vote early.” Four years ago, absentee ballots favored Obama, who took nearly two-thirds of them, VPAP said.

In its analysis, VPAP found that seven of the 10 jurisdictions where absentee voting has been most brisk this year went for McCain in 2008. Seven of the 10 places where absentee voting is most slow was Obama territory four years ago.

VPAP compared the number of ballots turned in so far this year with the total of absentees cast in that jurisdiction in 2008. So far in red Goochland County, in the Richmond suburbs, 317 absentee ballots have been cast, representing about 21 percent of 2008’s total absentees. In deep-blue Fairfax County, 8,539 absentees are in, a number equal to 8.3 percent of the total absentees in 2008.

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