In heavily Democratic Fairfax County, the state’s largest jurisdiction, the wait had stretched to four hours — and hundreds of voters — by midday, officials said.
Although early voting will continue thorough Oct. 31, with additional locations opening in a few weeks, those in line said casting a ballot on the first day had symbolic value, and would show others that the process works.
“You’ve got to vote on the first day and make a statement that we can’t put up with this any more than we have to,” said Ashok Viswanath, 51, who planned to vote for Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
Stephanie Simper, 38, said she would be casting her first ballot ever in a presidential election, also for Biden. “I just always went with the flow with whoever the president was,” she said. “But you can’t do that anymore.”
Kate Hanley, the secretary of the Fairfax board of elections, said the process was slowed because of physical distancing requirements aimed at preventing the spread of coronavirus. The county planned to add a second room with ballot machines, she said.
“We knew it would be busy but didn’t expect it would be quite this busy,” Hanley said. “Typically, we expect this kind of turnout on the last day of absentee in-person voting. Not on the first day.”
Next door in Loudoun County, there was a line of about 200 people outside the county office of elections when it opened at 8:30 a.m.
“Who’s ready to vote?” Ricky Keech, the county’s deputy registrar, shouted as the doors swung open.
Several voters said they had planned to vote by mail because of the pandemic but became increasingly worried about that option amid President Trump’s unfounded allegations that mail voting would be “rigged” and reports that the U.S. Postal Service wouldn’t be able to process absentee ballots in time.
“I don’t want my vote to be thrown away,” said Adam Pierre, 57, a Biden supporter who was voting early for the first time.
Leo and Gayle Saulnier, who voted for Trump, said they were pleased by the turnout, despite the fact that most people in line appeared to be in favor of Biden.
The retired couple said they are worried about the pandemic, enough to want to avoid the Election Day crowds, but believe Trump had been doing well with the economy until the coronavirus-induced recession.
“I’m very pleased with the stock market,” Leo Saulnier, 79, said. “We haven’t had to tap into our reserves.”
Most Virginia jurisdictions opened only one or two early voting sites Friday. Hours vary by jurisdiction and are posted on the local board of elections websites. Virginia has also begun mailing absentee ballots to voters who requested them.
Early voting starts in Maryland on Oct. 26 and in the District on Oct. 27.
Aside from the presidential election, U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D) is on the ballot in Virginia, facing Republican challenger Daniel Gade. Voters will consider two Virginia constitutional amendments, including whether to create a redistricting commission made up of citizens and lawmakers, and select congressional representatives.
Some of those races are highly competitive. Moderate Democrats Abigail Spanberger and Elaine Luria are looking to hold on to the House seats they flipped in 2018, in races both rated a Democratic toss-up by the Cook Political Report. And on Friday, Cook changed its rating in the otherwise reliably red 5th Congressional District, moving the race between Republican Bob Good and Democrat Cameron Webb from “leans Republican” to a toss-up.
Webb, a doctor who has worked in both the Obama and Trump White Houses, is proving unexpectedly competitive against Good, a former Liberty University athletics fundraiser who is campaigning as a biblical conservative and defeated incumbent Rep. Denver Riggleman (R) in a nominating convention this summer.
The new Democratic majorities in both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly passed bills this year to increase access to early voting. Virginians may now vote absentee or by mail without having to provide an excuse. The state will also allow drop boxes where voters can hand deliver their ballots.
Trump and some other Republicans have repeatedly attacked both mail-in voting and the use of drop boxes, warning without evidence of widespread fraud. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) took pains to assure Virginians this week that both measures were entirely safe — not to mention intended to keep them safe from the virus.
Ed Nolin, 66, said he was more concerned about delays in the mail, evidenced by his late prescription drugs, than any fraud. “I’ve been waiting for two weeks and still haven’t gotten [my prescription] yet,” said Nolin, who voted in Alexandria for Biden, Warner and Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.).
Still, many voters are requesting mailed ballots. Alexandria General Registrar Angela Maniglia Turner said ballots will be sent to more than 30,000 Alexandria voters in the next couple days — compared to roughly 1,660 at this time in 2016.
The wait to vote in person Friday was only about 10 minutes in Alexandria, where Warner and Biden campaign signs lined the street. While those in line were overwhelmingly Democrats, one lifelong Republican, Kathleen Ford was among them. She, too, said she could not bring herself to vote for Trump. “He’s not fit for office,” Ford said, declining to disclose who she would be voting for instead.
Warner arrived just after 11 a.m. to cast his ballot, saying he was “heartened” by the turnout. “It gives me that faith that we will get through this virus, we will get through the misinformation and disinformation, and the most effective way we can do that is to get out and vote.”
Even in rural Culpeper County, which voted heavily for Trump four years ago, most voters who came out Friday were Biden supporters.
One exception was Linda Woodward, 68, who said she’s hoping for a Trump win even more fervently than in 2016, when Trump first wooed her away from Democratic candidates by promising to shake up Washington.
“Last time I did it because I wanted change,” said Woodward, a retired health-care worker. “Well, I got the change and I want it to continue.”
Woodward said she’d always voted for Democrats before Trump, but likes the way the president stands up to Washington insiders. “He’s not afraid of those people,” she said. “Everybody patting everybody on the back, doing favors for everybody, I don’t need any of that.”
Woodward said she decided to vote early because she feared that state officials might force voters to cast ballots by mail because of the pandemic. “I don’t believe in it,” she said of voting by mail. “I was just afraid some might get lost, some might not get counted . . . I want my vote to count.”
She was also supporting Del. Nicholas J. Freitas (R-Culpeper) in his quest to unseat Spanberger. Freitas cast his own ballot at the elections office Friday morning, and returned in the afternoon with his wife, Tina, who voted as well.
Elections director James Clement said there were voters lined up when the office opened Friday morning, and about 100 people had cast ballots by noon. Officials have already mailed out more than four times as many ballots as in previous elections.
By next week, Clement said, Culpeper could match its tally of 1,000 in-person absentee ballots cast in all of 2016.
As people waited outside the elections office in Leesburg, both Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D) and her Republican challenger, Aliscia Andrews, showed up to garner support.
“We want everybody to do what’s right for them, because we have so many options now,” said Wexton, who defeated a Republican incumbent two years ago and is favored to win again this year in her increasingly blue district. “This is the most consequential election of our lifetime.”
Wexton voted, but Andrews did not cast a ballot, saying she and her husband have a tradition of voting together on Election Day. She said she wants her supporters to vote in whichever manner makes them most comfortable.
“Whether they come early or on Election Day, I just want them to come out and vote,” Andrews said. “Every vote matters, and every vote counts.”
Vozzella reported from Culpeper.