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Early Voting Underway in Virginia Ahead of Big Election

Early voting started Sept. 22 and stakes are high for both parties, with all 140 seats open in the state General Assembly.

Republicans have pushed to take advantage of early and absentee ballots ahead of the Nov. 7 election. The party’s support for early voting is a shift from recent years.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin called for early voting in a video released by the state Republican Party through its new initiative Secure Your Vote Virginia. The program encourages Republican voters to vote early and sign up for the permanent absentee list, which allows voters to vote by mail for all future elections. Youngkin also promoted early voting in his gubernatorial race.

“We can’t go into our elections down thousands of votes,” Youngkin said in the video. He will travel through key districts on a bus tour to stump with candidates and promote early voting.

Republicans in the Virginia House of Delegates introduced and passed House bills 1444 and 1947 in the last session, which attempted to eliminate the permanent absentee list, in favor of an annual application. The bills did not pass in the Senate.

The strategy is something Republicans should have done for past elections, according to Stephen Farnsworth, professor of political science and director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington.

“Gov. Youngkin has recognized that Republicans have been at a huge disadvantage with early voting over the last several election cycles and the governor is moving aggressively to try to reduce that early participation gap that has so strongly favored Democrats in recent years,” Farnsworth said.

Early and absentee voting has spiked since the 2020 presidential election due to the pandemic and several legislative changes. The total number of absentee ballots increased by over 2.6 million from 2019 to 2020, according to state post-election reports. A record number of people voted absentee, according to spokesperson Andrea Gaines with the Virginia Department of Elections.

Absentee voting numbers have remained higher than pre-pandemic numbers in every general election. Almost 1.2 million absentee ballots were cast in 2021. Last year, over 990,000 absentee ballots were cast. Though there was a downward trend, the absentee votes were still more than double the combined numbers from 2018 and 2019, respectively.

Recent state changes that make voting easier, and the convenience of absentee voting, will keep future absentee voting numbers higher than in pre-pandemic elections, Farnsworth said. There is no doubt that the new system is convenient and popular with voters, he said.

“People like the idea of not having to wait to the last minute,” Farnsworth said. “People don’t know, something might come up — a kid might get sick, they might be stuck in traffic, they may have to work late.”

The partisan gap in early and absentee voting has favored Democrats since 2016, data shows. Democratic voters made up over 60% of early votes in the 2022 election, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. Democrats vote early by mail. Nearly 76% of mail votes were returned by Democratic voters within three weeks of Election Day in 2021, according to a VPAP graphic.

Look Ahead America, led by executive director Matt Braynard, is a national organization pushing to increase voter registration and absentee voting. Look Ahead America’s primary focus is its voter turnout project for the 2023 Virginia General Assembly election, according to Braynard.

The organization identifies as nonpartisan and is not engaged in turnout on the basis of party, according to Braynard. The group has shown support for people charged in the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection and referred to them as “political prisoners” in the description of its “Jobs for #J6” project that helps now-unemployed people who participated in the protest to find work. The riot that ensued centered around recognition of the legitimacy of votes in the 2020 presidential election.

Early and absentee ballots are a more secure and convenient way of voting, and can help track participation, Braynard said. “It’s very expensive sending you mail and sending you door knockers and reaching out [] via phone and texting and digital,” Braynard said.

Look Ahead America supports the Virginia permanent absentee list.

“The way I see it is that the more people encourage folks to vote — by any means necessary, and probably the easiest way would just [be] to get on Virginia’s permanent absentee list — the better,” Braynard said. “I’m glad to see more people of all political stripes join the conversation to encourage that.”

Early voting begins in Virginia on Friday, Sept. 22. To submit an early ballot in-person, voters should check registration status and visit the local registrar’s office with an acceptable form of identification. Some districts have additional early voting satellite locations that can be found on the state elections website.

To vote by mail, voters should download and complete the absentee application form available on the Virginia Department of Elections website. A mail-in ballot must be postmarked on or before Election Day and be received by the general registrar’s office by noon on Friday, Nov. 10.

Many polling places will have weekend hours closer to Election Day. The last day to early vote in-person is Saturday, Nov. 4.

By Sam Brown / Capital News Service

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