More Virginians are requesting absentee ballots for this year's general election than did four years ago, a trend local registrars say is attributable to two factors: voters who want to avoid driving through traffic to their home precincts, and a new federal law requiring that ballots be automatically sent to overseas citizens, including members of the military, who made requests last year.
Although the increase has not been dramatic, the absentee ballots could have more impact on this year's gubernatorial race than any other in recent memory, because the contest is neck and neck, said Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
Hot-button issues -- such as immigration, the death penalty and abortion -- have not created a clear lead for either Democratic Lt. Gov Timothy M. Kaine or Republican Jerry W. Kilgore, Sabato said.
"They keep trying to push the needle. The needle may move slightly, but it always moves back to 50-50," he said. "These absentee votes could easily be the difference."
Applications for absentee ballots must be received by Nov. 3, and the deadline to vote early is 5 p.m. Nov. 5, three days before Election Day, Nov. 8.
As of 2000, anyone who can show that his or her commute and workday consume at least 11 of the 13 hours that polls are open can vote absentee. And commuters are increasingly using absentee ballots so that traffic does not stand in the way of their voting, registrars said.
In Loudoun County, General Registrar Judy Brown said 1,146 absentee votes were cast in the 2001 election, in which Mark R. Warner (D) defeated Republican opponent Mark Earley to become governor. As of Monday, Brown's office had issued 1,452 ballots, she said. "In the past two weeks, we've gotten a lot of applications from college students," she said, noting that on one day half of 143 ballots mailed went to students.
Virginia21, a Richmond-based lobbying group for students that was created in summer 2003, might be the reason, said Jesse Ferguson, the group's executive director.
The group, which has about 22,000 members, conducted a voter drive called Swing Generation on the campuses of the state's public universities this fall. About 7,500 students have applied for absentee ballots, Ferguson said.
Virginia21 offers students absentee applications on its Web site. "Students who are all wired in their dorm rooms can fill out their applications online," he said.
The State Board of Elections also pushed online applications for military and Hurricane Katrina relief workers, said Jean Jensen, board secretary. The 2002 Help America Vote Act, passed in response to the disputed 2000 presidential election, allows U.S. voters overseas to carry over requests from election to election. Virginia also offered online applications. Voters are still required, however, to mail in paper ballots, Jensen said.
"We saw a big bump last year and expect a bigger bump this year," Jensen said.
This year, counties have seen increases over the last governor's race, in 2001, ranging from a few dozen applications to hundreds. Much of the increase has come in fast-growing outer counties such as Loudoun and Prince William.
In addition to the 300-application increase in Loudoun so far, Prince William already has about 2,300 applications. Four years ago 1,366 ballots were cast in Prince William, General Registrar Betty Weimer said.
Arlington County's absentee-ballot numbers are similar to the numbers for the 2001 election -- with 2,100 ballots mailed out so far and 2,135 absentee votes cast four years ago, said Linda Lindberg, the general registrar there. The same is true for Alexandria, where more than 1,300 ballots have been issued so far. Four years ago, 1,377 absentee ballots were cast, General Registrar Tom Parkins said.
Fairfax County General Registrar Jackie Harris said voters have sent her office 5,457 ballots so far, but she said she did not have the numbers for 2001.
Although there are specific groups, such as students, senior citizens, commuters and soldiers, that are likely to vote absentee, the Kaine and Kilgore camps were vague yesterday on whether they are targeting any or all of those groups.
Kaine spokeswoman Delacey Skinner said the campaign has simply reached out to voters who are qualified. J. Tucker Martin, a spokesman for Kilgore, said: "I wouldn't discuss who we are targeting. It's 12 days [until the election]. Welcome to the bunker."
Sabato said he will be one of the absentee voters this year because he will be traveling on Election Day. There are disadvantages, he said.
"There might be a surprise ending [in the campaigns] that changes your mind," he said. Voting before Election Day "is irrevocable."