Voters in three solidly blue Northern Virginia congressional districts, where President Trump is deeply unpopular, have requested the most absentee ballots, led by 140,465 requests in the 8th District, which is represented by Rep. Don Beyer (D).
That’s nearly triple the 48,191 ballots requested in the bright red 9th District in the state’s rural southwest, which Rep. H. Morgan Griffith (R) represents and Trump carried by 19 points four years ago.
Democratic Party officials say the high numbers portend a continued blue wave in Virginia, which chose Hillary Clinton over Trump by five percentage points in 2016 and has trended more Democratic ever since.
“After the first few days of early voting, we’ve seen an unprecedented surge in enthusiasm with tens of thousands of Virginians going to the polls,” Susan Swecker, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Virginia, said in a statement. “And the data we’ve seen shows that Democrats are the ones driving record early voting numbers, a clear sign that enthusiasm is on our side and that voters are tired of Trump’s broken promises and failures to keep Virginians safe during this pandemic.”
John March, spokesman for the Republican Party of Virginia, said he was not convinced that Democrats were fueling the surge in early voting and absentee ballot requests.
“The great thing about Virginia is, you have no idea who’s requesting these ballots,” he said, noting that voters do not register by party in the state. “It could be every single Republican in those [Democratic] precincts requested those ballots.”
In any case, March said that Republicans are more inclined to wait to vote until Nov. 3. “Republicans are more likely to vote in person on Election Day,” he said. “That’s the sentiment I’ve gotten.”
Early voting is not something Virginia has traditionally encouraged. Until this year, voters needed to have a qualifying excuse — such as business or vacation travel — to obtain an absentee ballot or vote early in person.
Democrats, who took control of the state Senate and House of Delegates this year, passed legislation to allow “no-excuse” early voting, and Gov. Ralph Northam (D) signed that into law. The measure was one of several meant to ease restrictions on voting, but it has proved particularly popular amid the pandemic, which has some voters worried about being exposed to the virus if polls are crowded on Election Day.
Virginia has one of the nation’s longest early-voting periods — starting 45 days before Election Day and running through Oct. 31, the last Saturday before Nov. 3. Among the states that allow early voting, Maine, New Jersey, South Dakota and Vermont also offer it starting 45 days before the election, according to the National Council of State Legislatures. The average length is 19 days.
In Maryland, early voting will take place from Oct. 26 through Nov. 2. In D.C., early voting will run Oct. 27 through Nov. 2.
Virginia voters can cast an early vote in person at their local registrar’s office or at satellite voting locations. They can also request an absentee ballot, which they can return by mail or in person to the registrar’s office or other drop-box locations, which are listed on local government websites.
The deadline to request an absentee ballot is Oct. 23 at 5 p.m.
In Virginia, absentee ballots can be “pre-processed” before Election Day, meaning they are periodically fed into voting machines — with representatives of both parties present as witnesses. That is intended to avoid a large backlog in a year like this one, when absentee usage is unusually high.
Absentee ballots returned to the registrar by mail arrive inside two envelopes. The registrar opens the outer envelope to make sure the voter has signed it and filled in his or her address. There is also a spot for a witness’s signature, but the General Assembly did away with the witness requirement because of the pandemic.
Registrars will contact a voter if there are any errors and/or omissions. They will have until noon on Nov. 6, three days after the election, to make corrections.
Registrars may keep the ballots in the second envelope in a secure location until Election Day. But they also have the option to process them early, opening the second envelope and running the ballot through a voting machine. To do that, they must notify party representatives and elections officers so they can be present to observe. There is no tally of those votes before Election Day.