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EDITORIAL: Voter turnout high, thanks to absentee ballots

EDITORIAL: Voter turnout high, thanks to absentee ballots

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IN Virginia’s recent municipal elections, something slightly surprising happened. In the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime (we pray) pandemic, people voted.

In Fredericksburg, the turnout was approximately the same as it was four years ago (17.2 percent vs. 17.3 percent in 2016). In many cities and towns, a larger percentage cast their ballots this time.

Of course, they had some help. The absentee ballot played a major role (61,220 of them were cast this time statewide vs. 1,452 four years ago), and drive-by voting enabled others who might not have run the risk of COVID-19 by voting the old-fashioned way.

In one city, Staunton, the voter turnout more than doubled, from 13 percent in 2016 to 27 percent this time.

What does this mean for November? It will be even easier then to vote in absentia. A new state law taking effect July 1 will permit unconditional early voting starting 45 days prior to an election. Also, for the first time, Election Day in November will be a state holiday, and a photo ID no longer will be required.

Five Western states do elections solely by mail, and more are planning to go that route. According to the Vote at Home Institute, which (surprise) advocates vote-by-mail, 69 percent of western voters eschewed the polling place in 2018. (In absentee voting, voters must request a ballot. With all-mail voting, the ballots are automatically sent to every eligible voter.)

While making it easier for Americans to exercise their right to choose their elected officials seems like a laudable goal, not everyone agrees.

Jim Bopp, who represented Citizens United in the 2010 case that resulted in corporations having the same rights as individuals, is suing the state on behalf of six Northern Virginia voters who believe absentee ballots encourage fraud. The suit also claims that they disenfranchise voters, because a ballot could get lost in the mail, either coming to the voter or going back out.

Yes, and hanging chads and polling place screw-ups also could disenfranchise a voter, too.

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring says changing course on absentee voting would cause confusion and probably also disenfranchise some. Herring, a Democrat, says the lawsuit is part of a voter suppression campaign.

Conventional wisdom has been that the larger the turnout, the better it is for Democrats, although that was not the case in Staunton, where the GOP just unseated three incumbents.

Polls have shown for decades that Democrats tend to do better among registered voters than they do among those who actually show up at the polls. In other words, GOP backers have been better at walking the walk.

Department of Elections Commissioner Chris Piper says the only major issue in the recent municipal elections was a power outage in Surry County. It would be hard to pin that on absentee voting. Piper also says the June primaries will give the state a chance to further “fine-tune and perfect” the process in time for the November elections.

The odds of the pandemic completely going away by November seem slim, so helping people safely do what they are constitutionally entitled to do is a good thing. Absentee ballots are one way to exercise your right to vote without leaving the comfort—and safety—of your own home.

For voters who wanted to cast their ballots in person, Fredericksburg’s drive-up voting was another.

Making it easier to vote has far more positives than negatives, even after COVID-19 goes away. For years, pundits have decried Americans’ Election Day ennui. No doubt some absentee ballots will get lost in the mail or even stolen. Every effort should be made by election officials to make sure this doesn’t happen, and to double-check registered voter rolls to make sure all absentee ballots cast are valid.

But then again, voting at the polling place isn’t perfect, either.

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