Fairfax Solicits Absentee Voters

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Fairfax County election officials urged time-pressed commuters yesterday to follow the example of many voters who are disabled or expect to be out of town on Election Day because of military service or other reasons. Their message: Vote absentee.

Absentee ballots, the officials said, are available not only for commuters who might be stuck in gridlock between their home in one jurisdiction and their job in another. Even workers who typically don't leave the county may be eligible.

"We have people who work in our office who will spend 40 minutes on the [Fairfax County] Parkway getting to work" and the same going home, said Gary Scott, deputy county registrar. "Or people might work . . . for 12 hours, plus commuting. How can they get back to their polling place to vote?"

The answer, officials said, is an absentee ballot available to qualified voters who stay in town. The county announced yesterday that it would reach out to commuters who probably have no idea they're entitled to vote before Nov. 7. Since 2000, Virginia law has allowed such voters to cast absentee ballots, but state and local election officials acknowledge that few have done so.

"It's an unknown, hidden provision of the code," Scott said.

It works like this: Voters can apply for an absentee ballot as long as they affirm that they will be working or commuting for at least 11 of the 13 hours the polls are open (6 a.m. to 7 p.m.). The provision applies to voters regardless of whether they work in another jurisdiction. For instance, someone who lives in Lorton and works in Great Falls and would be pressed to find time to get to a neighborhood polling place to vote on Election Day could vote absentee.

In a county with 625,000 registered voters, long lines at the polls and a perennial shortage of poll workers, any boost in absentee voting could smooth Election Day. Ballots sent out last week could be cast well before the election. All are counted on election night.

The last day to register to vote is Tuesday, officials said, and the deadline to apply for a mail-in absentee ballot is 5 p.m. Oct. 31. To be counted, all mailed absentee ballots must be received by electoral board offices by 7 p.m. on Election Day.

Fairfax officials believe that few voters in past elections have cited their commute when requesting absentee ballots, though they have no official count. They said many people could be eligible in a county of 399 square miles and perpetual traffic, from firefighters to business executives. For the first time since the commuting provision was added, the Board of Elections sent fliers to voters this fall explaining how it works.

The provision hasn't been widely promoted by other registrars in Northern Virginia, in part because of confusion over who is eligible.

"If we had the resources, it would be a good idea to let people know about it," said Judy Brown, the registrar in Loudoun County, which has grown so fast it is adding three new precincts this month. Brown said she commutes 20 miles a day from Lovettsville to Leesburg and will work long hours on Election Day, making her a prime candidate to vote absentee.

Prince William County officials have encouraged commuters to vote absentee. "But people say they want to go to the polls," said Donna Green, assistant to the county Electoral Board. "They say, 'I want to touch that machine myself.' "

Registrars throughout Northern Virginia have supported bills that would allow voters to request absentee ballots without giving a reason. But such legislation has stalled in the General Assembly over concerns about potential vote fraud.

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