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Richmond Absentee Ballot Return Rate Lags Behind State

Woman and man voting
Richmond's absentee ballot return rate is the lowest in the state, something that might indicate many voters have chosen to vote in person instead. (Photo: Alex Scribner/VPM News)

Editor's Note: This article had information from Friday. We have updated it with new information and edited to reflect the change.

Just over half of Richmond voters who requested absentee ballots have returned them, placing the city among the lowest of all localities in the state.

As of Monday, only 55% of absentee ballots in the city have been returned, according to the Virginia Department of Elections. Across the state, the figure stands at 66%. As recently as Sunday, the city had the lowest return rate in the state at 39%.

One factor that may be depressing the return rate: the city’s mayoral and city council races.

Rich Meagher, a professor of political science at Randolph-Macon University who focuses on local and state politics, said that local races often feature high levels of undecided voters. Richmond’s races are no exception to this as a recent Christopher Newport University poll of the mayoral competition showed 30% of voters still undecided.

“It could be the case that in this local environment, people are still trying to figure out who the candidates are,” Meagher said. 

Byron Watts, a resident of Richmond’s 1st District, said while he had narrowed down his options in both local races, he wanted to spend more time getting to know the candidates and wait until after the mayoral forums before making his final decision. He also showed concern that he might waste his vote if he cast it too early.

“I wanted to make sure that the candidate I voted for, you know, actually had a real chance at winning, that my vote may actually help them win that,” Watts said.

Meagher said high levels of undecided voters mean local elections are often more unpredictable than their national and state counterparts. He pointed to Mayor Levar Stoney’s 2016 campaign as an example of this. Stoney ran a strong campaign that caused many late-deciding voters to break in his directions, Meagher said.

Meagher wasn’t sure how this dynamic would play out this year, however, as the pandemic disrupted traditional campaign techniques. 

“I know a candidate like Alexsis Rodgers was certainly counting on a campaign to get her name out there, to become a known factor,” he said. “And it’s a lot harder to do that under a quarantine.”

Rodgers is still campaigning, however, hoping to capture votes with Election Day little more than a week away. On Saturday, she held one event in each of the nine council districts in the city while wearing a mask and practicing social distancing.

Meagher said the low return rate does not make him concerned that people will fail to get their ballots in on-time. To count, ballots must be postmarked by November 3 and received by the registrar’s office by November 6 at noon. 

"I think of all the problems that can happen this election, I don’t think the late surge of absentee ballots is going to be too bad of one," Meagher said. "I would expect that most of the absentee ballots that we’re seeing are coming now and will slow down as we get toward Election Day as more and more people decide they’re just going to go vote in person."

Some voters made that decision over perceived risk of voting absentee, something both sides of the political spectrum have discussed. 

One such voter is 2nd District resident Ansley Pekins. Perkins originally requested an absentee ballot, but chose to surrender it in favor of voting early and in person.

"I really started feeling strongly about not wanting to play a role in any delay of votes that will need to be counted," she said. “Just not wanting to contribute any to the notion of these mistruths about absentee ballots not being counted or their being counted twice.”

Election Day is next Tuesday, November 3. The VPM News team will be providing coverage throughout the day and into the next online and over the air. 


Connor Scribner is a former VPM News assistant editor.
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