Big jump in absentee voting so far

Dave Ress

Virginians may be feeling dispirited about the presidential election, but that's not likely to keep them from voting, voter registrars' reports about absentee voting suggest.

The number who have mailed in ballots or gone to their registrars' offices to vote in person is up 23 percent from the same time in 2012, data compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project show.

"It means you really, really want to vote," said Olusoji Akomolafe, chairman of the political science department at Norfolk State University.

John McGlennon, chairman of the government department at the College of William and Mary, thinks it means voters are as energized as they were in the 2008 and 2012 elections, when voter turnout in Virginia surged.

"When you've got big differences in the candidates and you think the race is going to be close, that really drives turnout," he said.

The rise in absentee voting jibes with other indicators that interest is intense in this year's choice between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump, he said.

A series of polls report voters here are paying close attention, and that the percentage saying they intend to vote is high, he noted.

Voter registration is also up. The statewide increase in September of 69,731 is up by more than 17 percent from September 2012.

There have been big increases in cities with large minority populations, with Richmond adding 4,010 new voters, or 35 percent more than the state's largest city, Virginia Beach, which is more than twice Richmond's size. Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk and Portsmouth, which like Richmond tend to vote Democratic, also signed up proportionally more new voters than Republican-leaning Virginia Beach.

College towns, too, saw big increases in new registrations.

But the biggest increase came in Fairfax County, the state's largest, which also reported the biggest jump in absentee voting so far this year.

The county saw a 73 percent, or 6,263-ballot, jump in absentee ballots over the 2012 period, accounting for nearly half the statewide increase.

"Clinton's ground game has emphasized early voting — this could be a sign that it is taking hold," said Norfolk State's Akomolafe, who said the spike in Fairfax voting was one sign of her campaign's efforts to mobilize the Democratic Party's base that also has included registration pushes in cities and college towns.

On the other hand, it could mean Trump voters are especially eager to make their voices heard, he said.

McGlennon thinks the strong absentee voting reflects the effect of Trump's campaign, but said the effect is more likely to be negative for the Republican candidate. Turnout in the March primary was especially strong in those parts of Virginia that rejected the New York billionaire, he said.

"Northern Virginia voters seem particularly interested in voting early, perhaps because voters in those Democratic-leaning jurisdictions don't want to wait in long lines on Election Day," said Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington.

Other parts of the state have not seen as dramatic a rush to vote absentee.

"I'd say it's less than we saw in 2008 and '12," said Newport News registrar Vicki Lewis, thinking of the roughly 2,000 absentee ballot applications she's seen so far. That's well off the pace seen when about 10,000 city voters asked for absentee ballots those years and more in line with the 3,000 to 5,000 applications Newport News voters filed in in elections before 2008.

And while her City Hall office has seen about 30 people a day coming in to vote in person, with the City Center branch reporting 77 people on Thursday, one of the two days a week it operates, the total of absentee ballots cast so far is down 37.5 percent from the same period in 2012.

Hampton, Norfolk and Portsmouth reported declines nearly that steep.

Akomolafe said that might be because fewer sailors, soldiers and airmen are deployed now than in 2012.

In far southwest Virginia, the one part of the state where polls show Trump has a large lead, absentee voting patterns are mixed, though the total numbers and usual percentage of voters filing absentee ballots tends to be low.

"The results in Arlington, Alexandria and Fairfax are sharp contrasts from the more Democratic-oriented areas of Hampton Roads, suggesting that the Democrats might want to improve their early voting efforts there," said Farnsworth, at Mary Washington.

Christopher Newport University political scientist Quentin Kidd said it may be a sign that the Clinton campaign is still having trouble motivating younger voters, while increased absentee voting in Northern Virginia and the Richmond suburbs indicates that her pitch to women and college-educated voters may be hitting home.

Ress can be reached by phone at 757-247-4535.

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