While you might be able to have a discussion about whether or not this year’s presidential election is truly the most important in American history (something folks on both sides of the aisle like to claim), there’s no denying that the pandemic has impacted how people are going about the actual process of voting. With a little over a week left until Election Day, for instance, early voting sites have been open for about a month in Virginia and Fairfax County have seen about 9,200 voters cast their ballots everyday.
During the first few days of in-person early voting in the middle of September, there were reports of voters having to wait in line at the Fairfax County Government Center for over four hours. The long lines came as a result of the County not expecting such large crowds. As a result, they didn’t have enough rooms open for voters to cast their ballot. Opening up more rooms and adding another Saturday time for voters to vote early in-person did help ease the lines, but there have still been sizeable lines outside polling places in Fairfax.
Even as 14 satellite locations for early voting have opened up to provide the county’s 750,000 active voters with multiple options for casting their ballot, many voters are still facing wait times upwards of two hours. Gary D. Scott, who’s the director of the county’s office of elections, claims the pandemic is playing a crucial role in the longer lines. Not only does the county have to follow rules put in place to follow social distancing recommendations, but it’s been having trouble finding people who are willing to willing to serve as poll workers.
“Some of our long-term individuals who had been coming in year after year, as well as some of our new people, measured the idea of being exposed to a large number of people every day over several weeks and decided they just couldn’t take the risk,” Scott said according to the Washington Post. He pointed out that this has hampered the county’s ability to extend voting hours at satellite locations, which are currently operate from 1pm to 7pm during the week and from 9am to 5pm on Saturdays.
Many people have highlighted how the longer lines can have a outsized impact on low-income families who cannot afford to take time off of work or pay a babysitter while taking time to vote. Studies have also shown that for every hour that a person has to wait to vote, their likelihood of skipping the next election increases by one percent.
It’s perhaps with this in mind that community leaders are encouraging people to make a plan for how they’ll cast their ballot. Del. Karrie Delaney (D-67), for instance, tweeted about how it took her less than an hour to vote at the Sully District Government Center yesterday and encouraged folks to make a plan for when and how they’re going to vote.
“I cast my ballot today at the Sully Government Center and was in and out in less than an hour! It was safe, easy, and secure,” she wrote. “Don’t forget to make your plan to vote!”
With so many people not used to voting early, the long lines aren’t the only cause for concern. The process has also created some situations were the public is unsure of the rules and it appears as though some campaigns are trying to take advantage of this uncertainty. As Jack Kiraly, the Executive Director of the Fairfax County Democratic Committee, pointed out, for instance, Republican volunteers were spreading misinformation about voting rules in hopes of suppressing voter turnout in one of the county’s more diverse districts.
“Incident at one of Fairfax County’s 14 early voting locations open today. @FairfaxGOP volunteer told group of voters that they should go home if still in line at 7pm,” Jack tweeted while highlighting how this contradicts laws saying voters simply have to be in line before polls officially close. “Voter suppression comes in many stripes. If you’re in line, stay in line and vote.”
He would add that “this was in Lee District, the most diverse district in Fairfax with a high number of People of Color.”
This has also come as there have been serious questions raised about the Republican activists in Fairfax County trying to intimidate voters. The efforts were intense enough that elected officials such as Commonwealth Attorney Steve Descano made statements saying they were “instructing [their] office to pursue cases of voter intimidation that may occur.”
Despite the long lines at polling locations and tactics from Republicans that many people consider questionable, there are still an enormous amount of people voting early. In addition to all the mail-in ballots that haven’t been counted, for instance, about a quarter of Fairfax County’s active voters have already cast their ballots. And that’s with about a week of early voting left.
Considering how Fairfax County has been a Democratic stronghold in recent years, many Democrats are using these large turnout numbers to suggest Biden’s chance of winning is strong. This is especially the case when you consider reports suggest Democrats are having much higher turnout rates in the early voting process.
While there could be several motivations for why people are eager to cast their ballots, many community members highlight how they believe a large turnout is a sign of how strong our democracy is. When I was voting, for instance, a woman standing in line said she was thrilled people were so dedicated to voting that they’d stand in line for hours on end.
No matter if you view the potential partisan breakdown or increased participation as positive or negative news, the plain and simple fact that the process hasn’t run as smooth as possible suggests work needs to be done to improve plans for future election since early voting could be heavily utilized even in a post-pandemic world. How efficiently votes are counted and results are reported will only further add to the process and should receive thoughtful consideration.