Early voters enter the registrar's office in Botetourt County. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

The coronavirus pandemic has changed many things about the way Virginians go about their lives – including how they vote. 

As of Tuesday, more than 788,000 voters have cast their ballots in person or by mail since Sept. 17, when early voting started in the commonwealth. That’s an increase of about 75% percent from the 195,634 who voted early four years ago. 

But while the data, compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project, shows that roughly four times more than the early turnout in 2017 decided to forgo the long standing tradition of voting on Election Day this year suggests an increase of interest in early voting, the vast majority of early voters still prefer to cast their ballot in person. By Tuesday, 559,992 Virginia residents voted at their local registrar’s office or other early voting locations, and 228,652 – about 40% – mailed in their ballots. 

The new trend in early voting accelerated during last year’s presidential election, before vaccines were made available, when 2.8 million Virginians voted early, and about 575,000 of them by mail. Under Virginia law, the early voting period starts 45 days before Election Day and ends the Saturday before the latter. 

The number of people voting early could be a factor in this year’s gubernatorial race where Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe is deadlocked in the polls with Glenn Youngkin, the GOP nominee. The Republican is taking on the legacy of former President Donald Trump’s attacks on mail-in and early voting during the 2020 presidential election by hosting Early Vote rallies across the commonwealth. 

But Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, cautions observers of early voting numbers to draw premature conclusions that favor one party over the other. “We don’t have party registration in Virginia,” Sabato said. “Yes, you can see whether a person has voted in a party primary over the years, and that is some indication of leanings – but it’s an imperfect measure.” 

Companies like TargetSmart have modelled early voting, and it’s useful to know the quantifiable metrics, “yet the partisan totals are estimated and not precise,” Sabato said. 

However, Virginia Republicans have recognized the advantages of voting early. State Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County, has made it his mission to encourage Republicans to get a head start. “While I understand and share many people’s enthusiasm for casting their ballot on Election Day, this year I strongly urge you to consider joining me in voting early,” Pillion wrote in an email to supporters, adding that in an off-election cycle, turnout is historically low. “Every day is precious and we must use this time wisely to get people to the polls,” Pillion wrote.

In Pillion’s district, his call to action has worked. In 2017, only 920 voters in the deeply Republican Washington County cast their ballots early. But by last Tuesday, that number had quadrupled to 4,549, 67% of which voted in person.  

And at an Early Vote rally held by Republican gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin in Roanoke County on Wednesday, state Sen. David Suetterlein urged voters to cast their ballots ahead of Election Day. “Do not wait until Tuesday,” he said. Suetterlein, a Republican, is from Roanoke County, a suburban district where 9,521 people had voted by Tuesday – that’s more than five times than the 1,862 who voted early four years ago. Of the former, 6,998 voted in person, with 2,2523 casting their ballots by mail. 

Glenn Youngkin stumps at a rally in Roanoke County on Wednesday designed to encourage early voting. Behind him, from left, are Dels. Joe McNamara and Chris Head (applauding) and attorney general candidate Jason Miyares. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

Botetourt County with 82% has seen one of the highest increases of early voting in Virginia’s Southwest – from 698 ballots in 2017 to 3,794 this year. The vast majority of those early voters did so in person, only 790 voted by mail.

Giles County has also seen an uptick of nearly 80 percent, from 387 early voters four years ago to 1,886 in 2021 – that’s almost five times as many. Even in rural Lee County, Virginia’s westmostern and one of the state’s most underpopulated localities, voters recognize the advantages of early voting. There, the number has more than doubled, from 334 in 2018 to 702.  

But while comparing the early voting numbers from 2017 to this year’s elections definitely shows a trend, it is too soon to say what this means for future forecasting, because the pandemic isn’t over, and “2017 was another world,” Sabato said. “Virginians have also gotten used to early voting thanks to the new options that weren’t available in 2017. So what do the numbers mean? Not much until we see the results,” he said.

Markus Schmidt is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach him at markus@cardinalnews.org or 804-822-1594.