Fairfax County enters unknown territory for early voting with new laws in effect

When early voting began at the North County Government Center in Reston on Saturday (April 24), the crowd of electioneers assembled outside the building dwarfed the number of people casting their ballots inside the building.

The absence of lines contrasted sharply with the 2020 general election, when Fairfax County sometimes saw hour-long waits at early voting sites. This time, the biggest hold-up was the few extra seconds election volunteers needed to sort through 16 different ballots and match them with the right voters.

While not surprised by the relatively muted turnout for the first days of early voting for the June 8 Democratic primary, which started on April 23 at the Fairfax County Government Center before expanding to two satellite locations a day later, Hunter Mill District Supervisor Walter Alcorn says it’s too soon to make any confident projections about what early voting will look like in the future.

“Going through a couple of election cycles, I think we need to do that before we can come to any long-term conclusions about how early voting is best done, how to staff it, what resources are necessary,” he said.

Even with a crowded gubernatorial contest on the ballot, the 2021 election cycle likely won’t match the high turnout for last year’s general election, which was buoyed by an especially heated presidential race, but there is already evidence that the Virginia’s new laws permanently expanding the accessibility of absentee voting are paying off.

According to the nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project, 63,508 voters have requested mail ballots, and 709 people have voted in person, as of April 24. In comparison, there were just 35,390 early voters in the 2017 primaries, the last time that Virginia had a governor’s race, and that includes 8,815 people who requested mail ballots but never returned them.

Fairfax County has gotten 11,222 mail ballot requests and 68 in-person voters. In 2017, 3,109 people voted early in person, and 1,919 people voted by mail.

Fairfax County Office of Elections spokesperson Brian Worthy attributes this uptick to recent legislative changes made by the Virginia General Assembly, particularly the introduction of no-excuse absentee voting that took effect last year.

“Since the last gubernatorial election, voting by mail has become easier in Virginia,” Worthy said. “Not only can any registered voter do so without needing a reason as was required in the past, but also the law now makes it easy to vote by mail permanently. As a result, the Office of Elections expects to see an increase in voting by mail over time as has happened in other states that have implemented similar laws.”

Legislators took further action to make early voting more accessible during a special session in March, including requiring localities to offer ballot drop-off boxes, permitting absentee voting on Sundays, and suspending witness signature requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic, though those laws don’t take effect until July 1.

Early voting is also “way up” in Falls Church City compared to the last gubernatorial primary, according to Director of Elections and General Registrar David Bjerke.

Bjerke told Reston Now on Friday (April 23) that the city had sent out 315 ballots so far, including 176 mail ballots and 139 email ballots to overseas voters, and three people showed up to vote in person that day. The 2017 primary saw just 240 early voters total, even though the Democratic and Republican parties both held elections that summer.

“It’s a huge increase,” Bjerke said.

Bjerke predicts that, like last year, the rise in early voting will be accompanied by a decline in voting on Election Day, when he anticipates that the City of Falls Church will see fewer than 100 voters at any of its three precincts.

He also expects most early voters to cast their ballots in person, which has always been the more popular absentee voting method in the Little City.

Approximately one-third of Falls Church voters requested a mail ballot for last year’s presidential election, but many of them ended up voting or dropping off their ballot in person after shake-ups at the U.S. Postal Service fueled anxieties about mailed ballots getting lost or delayed, according to Bjerke.

He predicts that turnout for this year’s primary will fall between the 27% turnout for the 2017 primaries and the 48% turnout for the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.

“This primary is an interesting one for turnout,” Bjerke said by email. “Does the turnout effect that we’ve seen since 2017 which as was about 10% higher than the previous election 4 years prior continue? Or do we begin reverting back to pre-2017 turnout again? Check in after the primary.”

Turnout is even harder to predict in Fairfax County, which is much larger with 243 precincts and has set up more early voting locations than in previous years.

While the Fairfax County Government Center is still the main early voting site, even with COVID-19 vaccinations complicating the use of that venue, this is the first time that the county has opened two satellite locations — the North County and Mount Vernon governmental centers — 45 days before an election.

An additional 13 sites will be available starting May 29.

Gary Scott, who served as the county’s general registrar until retiring last week, told Tysons Reporter that the Office of Elections is preparing for a 40% turnout for the primary, mailing out about 10,000 ballots before early voting began.

Fairfax County Electoral Board Secretary Katherine Hanley says that Bjerke is “probably right” that early voting will be up and Election Day voting will be down compared to the last gubernatorial election, but the change in laws makes this year difficult to gauge.

“We have no idea what this turnout is going to be today,” she said while standing outside the North County Government Center on Saturday morning.

Regardless of what this year’s turnout ultimately looks like, Alcorn says that expanding the availability of early voting has been an important step forward for Virginia.

“Allowing early voting really does accommodate people who maybe are traveling, maybe who have other commitments that make showing up between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m. on one day difficult,” Alcorn said. “So, this is a big advance in making voting more accessible.”

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