The number of ballots already cast is approaching a quarter of the 3.75 million counted for the entire 2016 general election.
Early voting is surging here despite conventional political wisdom that Virginia — a critical battleground in the last three presidential cycles — is not in play in the contest between President Trump and former vice president Joe Biden.
Voters from both parties have expressed fears about the virus and election security, the latter stoked by upheaval at the U.S. Postal Service and comments Trump has made, without evidence, about potential voting fraud.
The turnout so far puts Virginia — one of a handful of states to kick off balloting 45 days ahead of Election Day — well ahead of most states in early voting, according to an analysis by University of Florida professor Michael McDonald, who puts the national average at 5 percent.
“We’re probably looking at three times the rate for early voting that we saw in 2016,” said Gary D. Scott, the head of the office of elections in Fairfax County, where election workers have taken in about 2,000 mail-in ballots per day while several hundred voters have lined up to cast their ballots inside the county government center since early voting began in Virginia on Sept. 18.
Democrats are widely seen as more inclined than Republicans to vote early, given that Democratic Party leaders embraced it for years as a matter of policy to make it easier to vote. The GOP, as a whole, has been more focused on tightening restrictions at the polls.
For that reason, Democrats are touting the surge in early voting as proof of enthusiasm for Biden, as well as for Democrats in several congressional races.
“Thanks to Democratic leadership and the game-changing voting rights laws we passed earlier this year, Virginia has led the nation in early votes cast,” said Virginia Democratic Party Chairwoman Susan Swecker. She called the surge a sign that Virginians are “fed up” with Trump.
But state GOP Chairman Rich Anderson said coronavirus fears, not Democratic zeal, are probably driving early voting. He expressed confidence that Republicans will turn out for Trump in force on Election Day, calling GOP enthusiasm “stratospheric.”
“Early voting this year is elevated to unprecedented proportions, likely driven by COVID-19,” Anderson said in a written statement. “We expect that a higher proportion of Republicans will vote on November 3.”
The number of Virginians who have voted early so far already exceeds the 538,410 voters who voted early in all of 2016, either in person or by mail, according to an analysis by the nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project.
An additional 675,714 Virginians have requested mail-in ballots this year but have not yet returned them.
Election officials attribute the surge to the legislature’s decision earlier this year to allow early voting for any voter. Previously, it was allowed only for those with an excuse, such as business or personal travel. Legislators also lifted requirements that voters fill out their absentee ballots in front of a witness.
Democrats in the newly blue state House and Senate pushed for the measures before the coronavirus pandemic to make voting more accessible, but amid the health crisis, many voters have welcomed the changes as a way to keep them out of Election Day crowds.
As of Friday, about 401,000 ballots had been cast statewide by “mail,” a term that covers absentee ballots returned by U.S. mail as well as those hand-delivered to a registrar’s office or drop box, state officials said.
But nearly 486,000 Virginians had chosen to stand in line to vote early in person, a reflection of the doubt sowed into the mail-in voting process after Trump’s allegations about an election featuring postal ballots and warnings from the U.S. Postal Service that it won’t be able to process thousands of absentee ballots in time for them to be counted.
On Thursday, Democratic members of Virginia’s congressional delegation tried to ease those doubts by urging Postal Service officials to confirm that ballot envelopes will be postmarked with a date, citing examples where that hasn’t happened in previous elections.
“We must protect the franchise of all Virginians who wish to cast a ballot by mail,” a letter sent to Postal Service officials by Democratic Reps. Gerald E. Connolly, Don Beyer, Jennifer Wexton, Robert C. “Bobby” Scott and A. Donald McEachin said. “If ballot return envelopes are not postmarked, they risk being invalidated through no fault of the voter.”
Postal Service spokeswoman Freda Sauter said the agency received the letter and would “respond directly” to the representatives.
“Our policy is to postmark all ballots mailed by voters, whether they are prepaid by election officials or mailed with a stamp affixed by the voter,” Sauter said.
Several people who stood in early-voting lines this week said they had requested absentee ballots to avoid the risk of being infected by the coronavirus while going into a polling station.
Yet there they were, waiting to do just that after deciding that their concerns about the mail-in voting process outweighed that risk.
“I just want my vote to count,” said Betsy Cromwell, 60, after voting for Biden at a state Department of Motor Vehicles office in Prince William County, where a separate line of cars with voters waiting to cast their ballots from behind their steering wheels snaked out onto the highway.
In Alexandria, Phil Calebrese said he became increasingly worried about the absentee ballot he requested in late August after it had still not arrived at his home early this month. The local elections office confirmed it had been sent.
But Calabrese, 70, was unwilling to take a chance. So he overcame his fears about the coronavirus and walked into his local elections office to also vote for Biden, making sure to keep his distance from the others around him.
“It’s a lot of trouble,” he said about making sure his vote gets in.
In Fairfax, where about 74,500 absentee ballots have been returned and 19,000 ballots have been cast in person so far, the wait outside the county government center had been as long as three hours before it dropped to about an hour this week.
Fairfax officials expect the process to further speed up after 14 satellite-voting locations open across the county on Wednesday. The county also opened the government center for voting on Saturday to help meet the extra demand.
Scott, the elections director, said the longer waits are partly due to the physical distancing restrictions in place because of the pandemic; only a small number of people at a time are allowed inside the voting area.
But, he said, it also takes longer when someone received an absentee ballot but instead decided to vote in person.
“That takes much more time to process than a person who is just coming in to vote,” Scott said, explaining that those voters need to fill out paperwork before they are allowed to cast a ballot.
Juliet and Andre Ayer took the easier route of using a county ballot drop box, which Fairfax officials said will be installed inside every one of the county’s early-voting stations and inside its voting precincts on Election Day.
“We thought this would be faster,” Juliet Ayer, 26, said cheerfully from behind her face mask as the couple walked to their car past the scores of people still waiting to vote.
Matt Wilson, the deputy registrar in Prince William County, said he expects the early-voting turnout to die down over the next week before surging again just before the election.
The deadline to register to vote in Virginia is Tuesday, and the last day to vote early is Oct. 31.
“We’re kind of in this period where the ‘eager beavers’ have gotten it taken care of, and we’re waiting for those last-second people,” Wilson said.