When state Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, was campaigning to represent the 36th District in 2015, he met people who hadn’t voted in more than seven years.
Some constituents told him they were “presidential-election only” voters, while others simply chose not to vote.
The most common reason Surovell found for people not voting, however, was long commutes.
“I just think a lot of people have really busy lives, horrible commutes and physical limitations which limits their ability to participate,” Surovell said.
Surovell hopes to change that.
During the 2019 General Assembly session, he says he will introduce a bill to bring “mobile voting precincts” to Virginia. Similar to DMV 2 Go, mobile offices provided by the Department of Motor Vehicles that are equipped for transactions like renewing a driver’s license, mobile voting precincts would bring the polls to the voters.
“You could use [mobile voting precincts] at commuter lots, Metro stations, county fairs, retirement homes, hospitals – places where there’s people who have limited ability to get around,” Surovell said.
Mobile voting could especially benefit voters who face long commutes.
“The urban areas put undue pressure on the voter,” said Toni-Michelle Travis, a state politics professor at George Mason University. “If you don’t vote early in the morning… You can’t necessarily get back in time to vote.”
The idea for mobile voting precincts was originally presented to Surovell by Cameron Sasnett, the ousted former Fairfax County registrar. Sasnett said he was inspired to try to bring mobile voting precincts to Virginia after meeting with colleagues from Ohio who help facilitate “mobile polling,” also known as supervised absentee voting.
James Alcorn, chairman of the Virginia Department of Elections, said one concern would be deciding where the mobile voting precincts would be stationed and whether they might be seen as favoring one side or another.
“Those are concerns that can be overcome but we wouldn’t want to use the placement of these centers to influence the outcome of the election,” Alcorn said in an email.
Alcorn said the mobile voting precincts would be “easier to control” if they were used for in-person absentee voting rather than alternate polling places on Election Day. This idea would be similar to “voter centers.”
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, voter centers provide an “alternative to traditional, neighborhood based precincts” by giving voters the option to cast their ballots on Election Day at a voter center in any jurisdiction, regardless of address.
Currently 13 states allow jurisdictions to use vote centers.
“We’ve always been tied to a precinct,” Travis said. “Somehow we should make voting more mobile or open to people who are not in that precise precinct during voting hours.”
Surovell said he became more aware of the need to increase voter turnout after his election to the state Senate in 2015.
He received 18,320 votes to represent the 36th District; his opponent, former Dumfries Mayor Gerald Foreman II, received 11,890 votes. Approximately 210,000 people live in the 36th District, which includes Fairfax, Prince William and Stafford counties and the towns of Occoquan, Dumfries and Quantico.
According to the Virginia Department of Elections, only 30,210 constituents in the 36th District voted for their state senator in 2015.
“Once you lay the numbers out I think people are shocked at how few people actually vote,” Surovell said. “It’s time we open up the system and change it to meet the realities of people’s current lives.”
According to a recent study from Northern Illinois University, Virginia is ranked as the second-hardest state in which to vote. The study measured its results with a “Cost of Voting Index” based on factors including the ease of registration, whether or not the state has automatic voter registration and registration deadlines.
Scot Schraufnagel, chair of the Department of Political Science at NIU and one of the authors of the study, said the study provides “very substantive findings” that shed light on the effect on voter turnout.
“Our ranking is not surprising,” Democratic Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg tweeted about the study. “It needs to change.”
Virginia Democrats have tried to improve automatic voter registration, same-day registration and other factors the study measured. However, their attempts were shot down last session in the majority Republican Privileges and Elections Committee.
Travis said voter turnout in Virginia could increase by simply changing when Americans are asked to vote.
“Maybe we could [vote] over two days, a Friday and a Saturday,” Travis said. “This Tuesday voting is just antiquated.”
Marissa McBride, executive director of the Voter Participation Center, a Washington D.C. based non-profit that works to increase voter registration among Americans, said voter turnout would increase in Virginia if the state allowed “no excuse early voting.”
That means that a voter would not need to provide an excuse for being unable to vote on Election Day.
Currently 37 states and the District of Columbia allow no excuse early voting, according to NCSL.
“I don’t see a reason why a voter ought to give a reason to vote early,” Surovell said. “It’s kind of an archaic, old-fashioned way of thinking about things.”
If Virginia residents cannot make it to the polls on Election Day, they can either vote absentee in-person at the local registrar’s office within 45 days prior to the election or apply to vote absentee by mail, fax or email. Once the registrar approves the application, voters will receive a ballot in the mail that must be returned to the local registrar by 7 p.m. on Election Day.
Excuses that allow Virginia voters to vote absentee include being out of town on Election Day, attending college away from home, being a first responder or active military member, being pregnant, being ill or caring for someone who is ill.
“The problem is we don’t make it very easy for people to vote,” McBride said. “We make it very difficult in terms of the limitations we put on time, registration deadlines, early vote deadlines or moving polling places or eliminating polling places.”
Voter turnout has been known to suffer at the national level, as well. In the 2014 midterm elections, an estimated 143 million eligible Americans failed to vote, marking the lowest voter participation at a midterm election in 72 years. In the 2016 presidential election, nearly 92 million eligible Americans did not vote.
Virginia’s low voter turnout trend was broken last year, however, during the 2017 gubernatorial election. Democratic Governor Ralph Northam’s win against Republican candidate Ed Gillespie drew more than 2.6 million votes, accounting for 47 percent of the electorate. This marked the highest turnout of voters at a Virginia gubernatorial election in 20 years.
McBride said the high turnout was likely a reaction to the results of the 2016 presidential election.
“Coming off some of these big elections oftentimes provides an opportunity to take action or to really feel like your voice is being heard,” McBride said.
Travis, the George Mason politics professor, predicts there will be a “huge turnout” at the midterm elections today for both “Virginia and the rest of the country.” According to an analysis of voting data by the Virginia Public Access Project, 266,519 people have completed ballots since absentee voting began Sept. 15 — a number that has far surpassed the 123,221 absentee ballots cast in Virginia during the 2014 midterm elections.
“People are understanding elections have real consequences,” McBride said. “You actually need to show up in order to make your voices heard.”
According to a report in The New York Times, the increase in the number of Virginia residents voting before Election Day reflects a nationwide trend.
“If these patterns persist, we could see a turnout rate at least equaling the turnout rate in 1966, which was 48 percent, and if we beat that then you have to go all the way back to 1914, when the turnout rate was 51 percent,” Michael McDonald, a professor of political science at the University of Florida who studies elections, told The Times. “We could be looking at a turnout rate that virtually no one has ever experienced.”