By Geremia Di Maro
There’s a line outside the City Hall Annex. Volunteers wearing cardboard posters of ballots circle cheerfully. This year, election season started early.
In Charlottesville, as of October 26, about 14,500 people have voted—a huge increase from the 3,394 total absentee ballots cast in 2016. Roughly 33,000 ballots have been cast this year in Albemarle County, where just 7,317 absentee ballots were cast in 2016. Two million Virginians, and more than 60 million Americans, have already pulled the polling lever.
“In Virginia, this was always going to be a very high-turnout election year,” says Miles Coleman, associate editor for Sabato’s Crystal Ball at UVA’s Center for Politics. “I think we saw some evidence of that even if you look at some of the off years—when Governor [Ralph] Northam was first elected in 2017—the turnout in northern Virginia really was much more than we were used to seeing.”
Virginia is among several states across the country that have sought to make early voting easier during the COVID-19 pandemic. The commonwealth has removed the requirement that mail-in ballots be signed by a witness, and allowed all voters to take advantage of curbside voting, for example. Other initiatives to make voting easier originated in the Democrat-controlled General Assembly this year. The legislature extended the deadline for when absentee ballots can be accepted and lifted long-standing restrictions on absentee voting, which required voters to claim one of several listed excuses to be eligible to vote early.
In Charlottesville, an average of 325 to 400 voters per day have cast their ballots in-person at the City Hall Annex since early voting began, according to Melissa Morton, Charlottesville’s director of elections and general registrar. Morton says the average wait time to vote in-person has been between 15 and 30 minutes, but adds that Fridays have been especially busy, with wait times as long as 45 to 75 minutes.
“We only had two voters who refused to wear masks,” says Morton. “Other voters, and our staff, offered the person a mask but he refused. After the voter voted, our staff disinfected the voting room.”
As of October 24, the City’s Walker Precinct, which makes up the northernmost portion of Charlottesville, was leading in early voter turnout with 2,222 ballots cast. The Venable and Buford precincts, where many off-Grounds UVA students reside, have seen the lowest turnout totals so far with 732 and 879 ballots cast, respectively. This trend generally mirrors the early voter pattern of 2016, although significantly more early votes have been cast across all precincts in Charlottesville this year.
Meanwhile, in Albemarle County, General Registrar of Voters Jake Washburne says early voting turnout so far has represented “a paradigm shift in voting behavior” for the County. Six-hundred to 850 voters have turned out each day to vote in-person at the 5th Street County Office Building. Washburne adds that most people have so far only had to wait five or 10 minutes to cast their ballots in-person.
“Even if the pandemic had not struck, I think we would’ve seen a significant increase in the number of people who would early vote [this year],” says Washburne. “But come COVID, that was like the one-two punch—I think a whole lot of people are concerned about going to a crowded polling place on Election Day with the virus still about.”
One caveat to the voting explosion is that new-voter registrations have declined sharply in Albemarle County compared to previous cycles. Washburne says that in 2016, 3,500 voters registered in the county between August and the registration deadline. That same time frame this year has seen just 1,800 new registrants. Washburne speculates that this decline, which has been especially notable in the precincts near the university, is the result of pandemic-hampered voter registration efforts and students re-registering to vote in their hometowns if they are taking online classes from home.
Nonetheless, voter registration and get-out-the-vote activism has continued on Grounds, says Kiera Goddu, a UVA fourth-year and president of the University Democrats.
“I’ve been taking one first-year [student] at a time—masked and windows down—to the Albemarle registrar’s office, and there have been other drivers who’ve been doing the Charlottesville registrar’s office so that students can vote early in-person and just kind of have it checked off,” says Goddu. “Especially during that period when [COVID-19] cases were at their worst at UVA, and students were most panicked that they wouldn’t be able to stay in their [on-Grounds] housing situation.”
Goddu says the University Democrats have also hosted limited in-person voter registration events twice a week since September. Setting up camp outside the Observatory Hill dining hall, the group registered almost 100 new voters in a single day just before the registration deadline earlier this month.
It’s hard to be sure what all this early voting will mean for election outcomes. Although preliminary estimates show that the surge in early voting across the country may favor Democrats, Coleman says he’d “be cautious [about] reading too much into the early vote.”
“It’s sort of the same way on election night—you don’t want to project a result when there’s only a small fraction of the vote that’s in,” he says.
“The Democrats, of course, have been telling their voters to vote earlier. Contrast that to Trump, who’s very, shall we say, skeptical of the early vote,” says Coleman. “What if it’s a rainy day? What if the virus gets much worse this next week before Election Day? So the Republicans, specifically Trump in encouraging his voters to wait, it could pay off, but it’s also a very risky strategy.”
In Virginia, early voting will continue through Saturday, October 31. On Election Day, polls open at 6am and close at 7pm.