A poll worker in Richmond holds an “I Voted” sticker. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
By Aliviah Jones/ Capital News Service
Virginia voters have already returned more absentee ballots in 2019 than in the November 2015 election — the last time all 140 seats in the General Assembly were up for reelection. In the last few elections there has been an uptick in absentee ballots, but not all returned ballots are counted.
A Virginia Department of Elections 2018 post-election report found that 6,771 absentee votes did not count in the 2018 election because they were returned to the registrar’s office after Election Day. Eleven were returned late in person and 6,760 were mailed late.
The VDE lists 2018 official absentee ballot counts as 287,763.
The VDE said in the same report that they would “work with general registrars in an attempt to determine if there are patterns that exist preventing the timely return of ballots.”
Ballots must be returned by 7 p.m. on Election Day, or Nov. 5, in order to count. The only exception, according to Andrea Gaines, VDE director of community relations and compliance support, is if voters are overseas or in the military.
The return date is listed on the absentee ballot application, but not the ballot itself, according to Gaines.
“There is no return date on the ballot itself,” she said. “When a voter receives an absentee ballot, they also receive instructions on how to properly cast that ballot in a manner in which it will be counted.”
When asked how VDE worked with registrars to determine patterns preventing the timely return of ballots, per the 2018 report, Gaines said: “Our mission is to provide voters with the information and resources necessary to successfully cast their votes.”
Zareen Farhad, a 19-year-old student at Virginia Commonwealth University, said she is voting absentee this upcoming election because she can’t make it back to Northern Virginia. Farhad said she has voted absentee three times and that the instructions on the ballot are sufficient, but that the VDE website could clarify when the ballot is due.
“I think that the Virginia elections website could be a bit more clear about exactly how to vote absentee and when early in-person voting is,” Farhad said.
Grant Fox, press secretary for the Democratic Party of Virginia, said the organization recently hired a full-time voter protection director to make sure every vote counts and voters are aware of their rights.
Republican and Democratic candidates have highlighted the option to vote absentee.
John Findlay, executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia said “we’re encouraged by the absentee numbers.”
As of Monday, the unofficial return count for absentee ballots is 73,903, out of 123,459 absentee ballot applications, according to VDE.
“Using absentee voting is a good indicator of potential turnout, and if you look at previous elections and compare it to today there has been an increase in this election and overall,” said VDE commissioner Christopher Piper, in a previous CNS interview.
Stakes are high with all 140 legislative seats up for grabs for this first time since 2015, but also since Donald Trump was elected president. Several Senate districts held by Republicans have leaned blue in recent elections since then, and voters pushed Democrats into the House en masse in 2017. Republicans currently hold a slim majority in both chambers of the legislature.
According to an analysis posted by the Virginia Public Access Project, 54 House districts have already surpassed the number of absentee ballots returned in 2015. Of those, 22 are also key House races determined by a CNS analysis of competitive races, redistricting changes and recent voting trends on Virginia Public Access Project. The top five House districts that have seen over twice the number of return absentee ballots compared to 2015 are:
HD 76 – Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, facing Democratic challenger Clinton Jenkins.
HD 78 – Del. Jay Leftwich, R-Chesapeake, running unopposed.
HD 77 – Del. Cliff Hayes, D-Chesapeake, running unopposed.
HD 9 – Democrat Martha Mulger and Republican Colleen Holcomb are running for an open seat in a Republican-held district where Hillary Clinton won in 2016.
HD 66 – Del. Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights faces challengers Democrat Sheila Bynum-Coleman and Independent Linnard Harris Sr.
Twenty-one Senate districts have also had a higher return in absentee ballots than in 2015. Three of the key senate races identified by CNS have had higher returns this year than 2015.
Residents who wish to vote absentee must apply for a mailed absentee ballot by 5 p.m. Tuesday through the VDE online citizens portal or their local voter registration office. The deadline to return absentee ballots to registration officers is Election Day at 7 p.m.
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