Thousands of Virginians used a warm November Saturday to cast ballots on the final day of early voting. Lawmakers passed a series of election reform measures in recent years that expand the voting period and allow for no-excuse absentee voting, or early voting.
Virginia voters will elect a member to the U.S. House of Representatives in all of the state’s 11 congressional districts, with varying districts also voting on local candidates and initiatives. Over 1 million absentee ballots were requested, according to the Virginia Department of Elections. Over 940,000 ballots have been received as of Nov. 7. Over 680,000 ballots were returned in person, and over 226,000 ballots were mailed.
Polls were open on weekdays except for the two Saturdays preceding the election. A steady line of people waited five to 10 minutes outside the Henrico County Western Government Center to vote Saturday. Some people waited longer than they might on Election Day, but appreciated the convenience of checking voting off their to-do list.
Henrico County general registrar Mark Coakley has held the position for 18 years, he said. Coakley, who studied political science in college, said he chose to be a part of the political process because it’s been a passion of his since he was a young adult.
“I’m really excited for voters showing up,” Coakley said. “Today, and on Election Day.”
Voters are happy with this shift, he said.
“With early voting, the voters get to choose to wait in line at 8:30 on a Saturday morning,” Coakley said. “It’s their choice — they’re not forced to vote on a Tuesday after a long workday.”
Alan Wagner is a voter who lives in Henrico County, parts of which are in congressional District 1. Wagner is concerned about crime, and the economy—especially the rising costs of items due to inflation, he said.
“I’m afraid to go into downtown Richmond sometimes,” Wagner said. “And the gas and food prices are outrageous.”
This is the first year Wagner voted early, in four decades of voting, he said. He decided to vote early due to the uncertainty of his work schedule on Election Day.
“I’m really busy working 10-hour shifts,” Wagner said. “I don’t know what the lines will look like at the precinct after 5 o’clock on Tuesday.”
Virginia residents have more of a voice in elections such as midterms, Coakley said, when they choose representatives to speak on their behalf in Congress. But, turnout is always higher in a presidential election. Almost 2.7 million early votes were cast in 2020 in Virginia, according to the state’s Department of Elections. For the gubernatorial election last year, over 1.1 million people voted early, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, or VPAP.
Although voter turnout in the 2018 midterm election was historic, an expanded time frame for early voting did not exist, Coakley said, which makes turnout comparisons more difficult.
“These laws weren’t put in place in 2018,” Coakley said. “But they have caused an increase in early voting.”
For example, over 330,000 early votes were cast in 2018 in Virginia, and that number will likely be at least three times higher this year, according to data from the Virginia Department of Elections. But, 1.2 million more people voted in 2018 than the previous midterm election. It remains to be seen if turnout this year will reach similar participation.
There is a 70% return rate of absentee ballots overall in Virginia as of Nov. 7, with the lowest district return rate at 64% and the highest at 76%, according to the Virginia Department of Elections.
Election Day is Nov. 8. Absentee ballots must be postmarked by that date and received by noon three days after the election to count. Voters can find their polling place on the Virginia Department of Elections website. Voters can also register to vote on Election Day, though they will be given a provisional ballot.
Chloe Hawkins / Capital News Service
Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture.