By Bob Gibson
Election Day is technically still Nov. 3 this year, but that one day now is simply the last chance to cast a vote in person the traditional way at a polling place.
Given expanded voting options put in place this year, most Virginians are likely to have already voted before Nov. 3, elections officials say.
Election Voting Season, which started Sept. 18 in Virginia (and differs state by state), could more accurately describe the 47-day period in which record numbers of voters are expected to cast ballots, often early and in new ways.
Considering the choices every voter now faces, more than 60 percent of Virginians could cast ballots before November, said Bob Brink, the former Arlington delegate who chairs the State Board of Elections.
In Fairfax County, the state’s Goliath voting jurisdiction, officials are expecting as many as one-third of voters to cast an early ballot in person, another one-third by absentee ballot sent in by Nov. 3 and a final third waiting to vote on Election Da at the polls, Brink said.
Given more time to vote this year and more ways to cast their ballots, residents of the Old Dominion are being assured they have good, safe choices that include drop boxes in every city and county.
The drop boxes, which are being monitored, allow voters to drive to and drop off an absentee ballot, allowing the ballots to be received without any personal contact during the COVID-19 pandemic and without relying on using the U.S. Postal Service to deliver a ballot.
If using the mail, voters are encouraged to mail their ballots early. Voters can track their mail-in ballots the way packages are tracked to follow the delivery process and be assured they arrive on time to be counted. Absentee ballots mailed by Nov. 3 and received by Friday, Nov. 6, will be counted, Brink said.
Chris Piper, commissioner of the Virginia Department of Elections, said Virginia’s new voting options remind him of a Burger King ad slogan.
‘”Any way you want it?’” Piper said. “Any way you want it, ... we got it.”
Early voting in person started in every locality on Friday and will continue through Oct. 31, Piper said. Some localities will have extra satellite locations for early voting in addition to voter registrar’s offices.
For the first time, Virginia voters may cast ballots early in person this year without needing a specific reason to vote before Election Day, such as being on vacation or working in a locality other than where one lives.
Visiting a registrar’s office or a satellite early voting location for early in-person voting can be any voter’s choice in any part of Virginia this year. Lines likely will be shorter than at a regular Election Day polling precinct. Also, voters over age 65 or with disabilities can vote from their cars at early voting sites.
“What the elections office is striving for is to make any mode of voting as secure as possible,” Brink said. All indications are that record numbers of Virginians will cast ballots this year.
The return postage for absentee ballots is being paid by the state, he noted. Fairfax County Del. Paul Krizek advanced a bill to cover return postage, noting that prepaid postage is likely to help younger voters who are less likely than their parents to keep stamps in their desk drawer.
Any problems that might disqualify an absentee ballot for lack of a piece of needed information can be addressed up until noon on Nov. 6 through the ability to check and correct them, he noted.
Two deadlines to be aware of this year are Oct. 13, the deadline to register in person to vote, and Oct. 23, the deadline to request a ballot by mail.
Both Brink and Piper said they plan to vote early and they encourage others who choose using an absentee ballot to apply for it early and send in the ballot at least a few weeks before Nov. 3.
Brink said Virginia will be reporting the state’s unofficial election results by the night of Nov. 3, including the vast majority of early votes and votes received by mail and in drop boxes. A much smaller number of absentee ballots arriving up to three days late by mail as well as provisional ballots cast Nov. 3 will be added to the tally on Nov. 6.
“There is no ‘Election Day’” any longer in Virginia, Brink said. There is an expanded election voting season already underway with new and expanded and safe ways to cast ballots.
Gibson is communications director and senior researcher at the University of Virginia’s Cooper Center for Public Service. The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of the Cooper Center.