By Noble Pearson
Over the past several years, Virginia has expanded early voting in the state with new legislation. In April 2020, former Governor Ralph Northam signed HB1/SB111 into law, which allows any registered voter to vote up to forty-five days prior to an election by absentee ballot in any election in which that person is qualified to vote with no excuse required. On that same day, Northam also signed HB238/SB455, which allows absentee ballots to be counted if they are postmarked on or before the day of an election and are received by the general registrar by noon on the third day after the election. The next year, in March of 2021, Northam signed HB1968 into law, which permits local election boards to offer absentee voting in person on Sundays during the early voting period leading up to an election. Before these changes, voting by absentee ballot had been restricted to voters meeting specific requirements, such as being an out-of-area student or a member of the armed forces residing temporarily out-of-state. The 2020 and 2021 changes thus expanded access for Virginia voters regarding early voting, particularly in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Since the passage of these new laws expanding early voting, Virginia has held two elections with extremely high turnout in 2020 and 2021. 2020 saw a contentious presidential election, and 2021 included statewide contests for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and General Assembly seats. We are now approaching the first midterm election since the new laws referenced above have been passed. There are no state elections on the ballot this time, and only a handful of competitive races for U.S. Congress, but turnout is still expected to be high. Some are suggesting that deep political divisions in the state concerning topics such as the economy, abortion, and Donald Trump will motivate increased voter participation in this election, especially early participation.
While, at the time of writing, we are still two weeks away from election day itself, high numbers of early voters are making news around the Commonwealth. In the 2018 midterm election, the last midterm election before the new laws went into effect, the grand total of early voters was around 345,000. As of October 19, 2022, more than 302,000 votershad already voted early, with nearly three weeks remaining. Suffolk General Registrar Burdette Lawrence claims that Suffolk has received near-presidential race levels of early votes. Reports from around the state, including Roanoke, Richmond, and Prince William County, indicate that early voting is taking place at significant levels. With increased access and strong political motivation, the popularity of early voting and voting by mail seem to be rising.
With many challenges remaining for election officials, there is also hope that early voting provides an avenue to mitigate other election concerns. Experts are bracing for map-based confusion in this election, as the voting maps in Virginia have changed following post-census redistricting. Additionally, there have been recent reports of printing errors wreaking havoc in northern Virginia, with election officials in Fairfax and Prince William counties reporting that over 31,000 voters received documents indicating incorrect polling locations. The good news is that early voting may help alleviate some of these issues, as county election officials have recommended early voting as a possible way to proactively avoid confusion regarding polling location on election day.
The November 2022 midterm election in Virginia is yet to be complete, but it is clear that Virginia’s recent legal changes to expand access to early voting are leading to increased voter turnout. With the voting numbers already closing in on those of the previous midterm in 2018, all expectations are that there will be a noted increase in midterm voter turnout this election. Prince William County registrar Eric Olsen has said that the state should expect to see even more early voting in the remaining days before the election, with voters often procrastinating until the last few days before the election to cast an early vote.
It is easy to see why expanded early voting is so popular. Early voting is safer, easier, and more accessible than ever before, and may well lead to enhanced civic engagement. In a time of contentious politics and heightened division, voting is increasingly important to members of both political parties. In fact, support in Virginia for early voting has been largely bipartisan, with Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin’s embrace of early voting playing a part in his 2021 election. Politics aside, the ability to vote is a fundamental part of American civil life. As Virginia is demonstrating, expanded access to voting results in expanded interest in voting, which is good for democratic participation. Long may it continue.