FRONT ROYAL— Voters in Warren County trickled in and out of the Registrar’s Office on Friday as day one of voting for the Nov. 3 election began.
“It’s been very busy,” Vicky Newman, an election officer said on Friday. “People are very enthusiastic about voting.”
When the polls opened at 9 a.m., Newman was already stationed inside the small room filled with officers donned with latex gloves and masks behind plastic shields. Voters were reminded by signs leading into the room to keep their masks on and their distance from each other.
Newman said part of her job on Friday was to help direct people where to go, where to vote and where to turn their ballots in. The other piece was to make sure the area was wiped clean after they left because COVID-19 doesn’t cease in the heat of the election season.
COVID-19 spurred legislators to put extra effort into a previously stated intent to expand access to early voting in Virginia. Democrats already planned to nix Virginia’s rules about needing an excuse to cast a ballot before Election Day and a global pandemic emphasized the need to give voters a chance to vote in a safe and secure manner.
Though widespread early voting is new to Virginia. Newman said the civic duty of participating in an election isn’t new to her. When she was in third grade at A.S. Rhodes Elementary School in Fron Royal, she appeared in the newspaper — a photo showing her learning about how to vote and how to get involved in the voting process.
Around noon on Friday, the busy flow of voters slowed in Warren County and Shenandoah County election officials got their first break of the day.
Lisa McDonald, the Shenandoah County registrar, said she and her staff had been “slammed” all day.
“At one point there was a 30-minute wait,” McDonald said. “Everybody showed up and we had curbside voters as well … we’re happy to provide that service, but it takes a little bit longer.”
Before voters got inside, election officials handed them sample ballots and brochures explaining the two constitutional amendments on the ballots, McDonald said.
While there were a handful of small bumps in the road, most everyone who showed up to cast a ballot on Friday came prepared, McDonald said. Some voters had requested absentee ballots by mail and then came down to vote on Friday. After McDonald and her staff explained that those voters could either wait and return their ballot or cast a provisional one, most of them decided to come back next week.
Voters who requested an absentee ballot by mail can expect to see them in their mailboxes next week, McDonald said, as the packets were sent out this morning.
On her way out of the voting room in Warren County — through a different door than the one she entered — Cheryl Socks, a Bentonville resident, said she wanted to cast her vote early so she didn’t have to wait until Nov. 3.
“I just wanted to come in and have it designated because I already knew who I wanted to vote for,” Socks said. “I felt that it would be really beneficial for me and easy for me.”
Socks said the unrest that has been shaking the country was part of what pushed her to cast her vote as soon as possible.
“You never know what is going to happen,” she said. “I just did not want to have to work around that and be concerned about that.”
Other voters were planning to vote early because they were going to be out of town on Election Day. Mike LaComb, a Front Royal resident, said he is almost always out of town on Election Day so he’s an early-voter veteran.
This year, he could have mailed a ballot in but he said that voting in person is what he’s done for 50 years and he didn’t see any reason to change things.
LaComb said he also expected smaller crowds on the first day.
“I figured not too many [people] would be here today,” LaComb said. “Just to avoid the crowds for time and for being safe.”
Voters who visited their registrar’s office early on Friday or who plan to mail in a ballot can be assured their vote will be counted — regardless of how tight or wide the race is on election night — McDonald said.
In past years, McDonald said, her office has always waited until Election Day to begin counting absentee ballots — both those mailed in and cast early in person — but this year she expects to start that process earlier. In Virginia, local registrars can begin counting ballots after Oct. 13 — after the rolls for new voter registrations close.
After Oct. 13, McDonald said she will call in election officials — representatives from both the Democrats and Republicans — to begin scanning ballots into the system.
She is expecting to be inundated with early ballots this year.
“In the past, we have always waited until Election Day because it was absentee with an excuse, so we did not have as many ballots,” she said.
With the changes to early voting, there are more ballots and the process of verifying ballots is strenuous, she said, so the earlier they get started on counting them the easier the job will be.
Voters can continue to cast early, in-person ballots until Oct. 31. Registrar’s offices will be open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday for voters and during the same hours on the last two Saturdays of October.
Voters who apply to vote by mail must send in their ballot and have it postmarked by Nov. 3.