By Imani Thaniel
Capital News Service
In addition to hitting the books this fall, more Virginia college students may hit the polls next month, according to the Virginia Department of Elections.
Virginia Department of Elections data show that 10,923 students in Virginia have applied for absentee ballots this year. That’s more than double the number of absentee ballot applications (4,878) received in 2015, the last year all 140 seats were up for reelection in the General Assembly, according to Christopher Piper, commissioner of the department.
Residents (including students) have requested 66,219 applications for absentee voting, according to state election data. Records show that 62,605 absentee ballots were filed four years ago. As of today, the state has filed 24,766 absentee ballots; it remains to be seen how many more are returned.
Piper said absentee ballots have increased in popularity. Last year, voters submitted 287,763 absentee ballots, the highest number of votes in the state during a non-presidential election based on data available since 1976. The 2008 presidential election had the highest rate of absentee voting recorded in Virginia, with 506,672 absentee votes submitted.
“Using absentee voting is a good indicator of potential turnout, and if you look at previous elections and compare it to today there has been an increase in this election and overall,” Piper said.
Traditionally, voter turnout is highest during presidential elections and drops during state elections. For instance, 72% of registered voters participated in the 2016 presidential election, but turnout for the 2017 gubernatorial election fell to 48%. That same year, the second highest number of absentee votes, 496,452, were filed.
“We could potentially have a higher turnout due to the opposition within the 93rd and 94th House districts,” said Vicki Lewis, with the Newport News registrar’s office.
Perhaps this election is predicted to spur higher voter turnout in part because it includes over 30 competitive races. Further, redistricting maps gave an advantage to some House Democrats, who hope to wrest back the slim majority Republicans hold — in both chambers. As of Sept. 30, Virginia had 5,612,769 registered voters. In the 2015 election, nearly 5.2 million residents registered to vote and a little over 1.5 million, or 29%, actually voted.
Erin Burke Brown, the voter registration and turnout chair for VCU Votes, which promotes voter engagement at Virginia Commonwealth University, said it remains to be seen whether young voters will show up to the polls.
“It depends on whether young people are fired up to want things to change and have their voices heard,” Brown said.
Applications for absentee ballots can be found online or by visiting the local registrar’s office.