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Virginia Early Voting Begins With Record Interest

Voter behind ballot privacy screen
A voter casts a ballot in June 2019 primaries. (Yasmine Jumaa/VPM News)

Early voting begins Friday in Virginia under new rules passed by Democrats in the General Assembly.

For the first time, Virginia voters don’t need an excuse to cast an absentee ballot and no longer need a photo ID. Voters in some cities and counties will also be able to leave ballots in drop boxes.

At least 790,000 Virginians have requested absentee ballots as early voting begins on Friday, more than triple the total for all of 2016. In some localities, the total is even more extreme; in Hanover County, registrar Teresa Smithson said she’s processed roughly 10,000 applications, quadrupling her 2016 total.

Smithson and her team had a busy week bracing for this day. They’ve tested voting machines, set up social distancing markers, and printed stacks of ballots.

“It’s almost like launching a rocket,” Smithson said. “We’ve got checklist after checklist.”

Smithson has a drop box set up outside her office. It will be under constant surveillance and emptied three times a day to prevent, in her words, “shenanigans.” Other regional registrars, including Chesterfield County, are opening satellite locations for early voting.

Registrars like Dawn Wilmoth in Petersburg are bracing for unpredictable foot traffic, given the changes to voting law.

In the past, Wilmoth said, “Election Day was much like a Super Bowl -- you knew which day it was on.”

“Election day every day in office for 45 days does not allow us to plan for the varying degrees of when people will choose to turn out or show up,” Wilmoth said.

How to Vote

Voters don’t need a separate application to early vote in-person, just an approved ID. An application is required for mail-in ballots and is available on the Virginia Department of Elections  website.

The department is encouraging mail-in voters to request and return mail-in ballots as fast as possible “because of the anticipated high volume of mail-in votes,” according to a press release. Voters can track the status of their ballot applications online or by calling their registrar’s office.

In a panel hosted by Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) last month, a representative of the U.S. Postal service encouraged voters to request ballots no later than 15 days out from election day and to send them no later than a week before November 3. The USPS has come under fire for service changes that have slowed service across the country.

The deadline to request a mail-in ballot is October 23 at 5 PM. In-person early voting ends October 31.


Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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