By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 16, 2008
RICHMOND, Oct. 15 -- Nearly a half-million people registered to vote this year in Virginia, a 10 percent increase and the highest single-year boost in at least the past decade, according to final figures released Wednesday by the State Board of Elections.
With Virginia a key battleground in the presidential race between Democratic nominee Barack Obama and Republican John McCain, elections officials reported unprecedented interest in signing up voters.
Virginia does not register by party, so there is no way to be sure whether the crush of new voters will benefit Obama or McCain. But jurisdictions that have traditionally favored Democratic candidates outpaced Republican strongholds in the battle to register new voters.
The numbers were released after elections officials finished processing the final crush of applications they received in the days and weeks leading up to the Oct. 6 registration deadline. The state's voter rolls are now above 5 million people, the highest ever.
"It's historic," said Rokey W. Suleman II, the general registrar in Fairfax County, which has more than 61,000 new voters. "I worked 37 straight hours Friday and Saturday, processing applications. We worked night and day."
Subtracting people who died or moved out of state, Virginia has 436,000 more registered voters than it did at the beginning of the year.
Maryland's registration deadline was Tuesday, and officials there are still counting new voters. So far, officials say there's been an almost 10 percent increase, to about 3.3 million registered voters.
District officials also are still counting new voters. "At this point, we are working hard to process thousands of registration applications that we got in the weeks before the October 6 deadline," said Dan Murphy, a spokesman for the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics. "We are expecting a significant increase in the number of people registered in the District." Murphy said that as of Aug. 11, there were 399,127 registered voters in the city.
Virginia's registration has jumped 10 percent since Jan. 1. In 2004, the last time there was a presidential race, the number of registered voters rose by about 272,000, or 6 percent.
The surge in registrants mirrors trends in other states, as Obama's campaign and outside groups engaged in a massive registration campaign nationwide.
Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Ohio and Florida, which like Virginia are crucial battlegrounds in the presidential contest, all report that they added at least a half-million registrants this year.
In those states, the new registrants have skewed heavily toward the Democrats.
It would seem the same is true in Virginia. The Washington suburbs, which have been key to recent Democratic victories in the state, account for about 35 percent of newly registered voters.
There also were major registration gains in several cities with a majority African American population. Richmond has 121,769 registered voters, a 17 percent increase since the start of the year. Norfolk, Petersburg and Newport News experienced similar gains.
There also was a surge in new registrations in Virginia's college towns. Charlottesville, home to the University of Virginia, increased its registration rolls by 15 percent. Williamsburg, home to the College of William & Mary, had a 20 percent increase.
Overall, about 60 percent of the new registrants are 34 or younger, a demographic Obama hopes to carry handily. State and national polls show that likely voters of that age favor Obama.
"People who have not been involved in the political process before realize how much is at stake in the election, and we feel like we have a good case to make for those voters," said Kevin Griffis, an Obama spokesman.
In 2004, President Bush carried Virginia by 262,000 votes.
To help narrow that margin, Obama's campaign set a goal in July of registering 150,000 new voters before the Oct. 6 deadline. The campaign said it expected a large majority of new voters to support Obama.
Virginia ended up adding 269,000 registered voters between July 31 and Oct. 6.
The counties with the lowest percentage increase in new registrants are in rural western Virginia, where McCain is expected to perform well. An exception to that is Lynchburg, home to Jerry Fawell's Liberty University, which had a 16 percent increase.
Gail Gitcho, a McCain spokesman, said her campaign remains optimistic about its effort to win Virginia's 13 electoral votes. "John McCain's campaign in Virginia had an aggressive voter registration effort. The next step is to make sure these voters turn out for John McCain and Sarah Palin on Election Day," she said.
Some pointed out that even though there was a huge increase this year in Virginia, the percentage increase in voters since the 2004 election is about the same as the increase between 2000 and 2004.
But Obama's campaign might benefit from the efforts of various groups in registering minorities. Ayodele Carroo, director of the nonpartisan Community Voters Project, said 370 of its staff members registered 85,000 minority voters in Virginia this fall.
"We canvassed public sites throughout the African American community," Carroo said.
In July, three people who were working for Community Voters were arrested in Hampton and charged with submitting false names on voter registration forms. Carroo described it as an isolated incident, noting that her organization alerted authorities to the possible irregularities.
But Katie Wright, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, said such efforts create problems. "This kind of activity only undermines the public's confidence and integrity of our electoral system," she said. "We remain focused on ensuring that every qualified voter has the opportunity to cast their vote and not have their vote diluted by an ineligible voter's unlawful vote."
Staff writers Hamil R. Harris and Lisa Rein contributed to this report.