Prince William County election officials have already processed 50% more requests for mail-in ballots this year than they did for the 2016 election.
And the increased interest in voting by mail may mean a delay in final election results in November.
As of Monday, county election officials had processed 24,349 requests for mail-in ballots for the Nov. 3 election — already more than the 16,229 mail-in ballots the county processed for the last presidential election in 2016.
Michele White, the county’s elections director and general registrar, said Tuesday the office processed 9,718 mail-in ballots in the 2018 election. The deadline to request a mail-in ballot for this year’s election is Friday, Oct. 23, at 5 p.m.
Under a new state law, election officials can count mail-in ballots that are postmarked by Nov. 3 and received by noon on Friday, Nov. 6. Previously election officials could only count mail-in ballots received by 7 p.m. on Election Day, said Keith Scarborough, secretary for the county’s elections board.
“If we have close races, instead of Election Day, we’ll have Election Week or longer,” Scarborough said.
Unofficial election results will still be released Nov. 3, which will include in-person voting and absentee ballots received through that point, Scarborough said. It’s unclear how many mail-in ballots officials will receive after releasing results Tuesday, Nov. 3.
“Then we’ll keep counting ballots until Friday,” Scarborough said.
Scarborough estimates county election officials will receive up to 30,000 requests for a mail-in ballot by Sept. 18, when officials will begin mailing ballots to registered voters who requested them.
“So we’ll have a record increase in mail-in ballots,” Scarbarough said.
In-person early voting also begins Sept. 18. Due to a change in state law, registered voters can cast their ballot early, either in person or by requesting an absentee ballot in the mail, without qualifying for an excuse starting this election.
The Prince William Board of County Supervisors approved this month the schedule for voting before Election Day.
With more people eligible to vote by mail combined with the COVID-19 pandemic, Scarborough said some voters will be casting their ballots by mail for the first time.
“You have uncertainty about mail service,” he said. “How do I know if it gets delivered to the registrar?”
By visiting the Virginia Department of Elections website, voters can register to vote or check if their local registrar received their mail-in ballot online, Scarborough said. The last day to register to vote is Oct. 13.
“An important message to voters is don’t wait until late to apply for a ballot,” he said. “If you have any questions, call the office. We’re happy to look it up, but if you wait until the last week before the election, there is only a limited amount we can do.”
White said voters can call her office if they don’t receive their mail-in ballot in a timely manner or if there’s a problem with the ballot.
During early voting, voters can visit any satellite voting site. County election officials are planning to open all 93 polling locations on Election Day.
Prince William voters turned in more mail-in ballots during the primary on June 23 compared to previous years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In June 2018, county election staff processed 582 mail-in ballots, White said. In June 2019, staff processed 383 mail-in ballots. In June of this year, staff processed 13,731 mail-in ballots.
While 196,538 residents cast their vote in Prince William County for the 2016 presidential election, the county has 314,030 registered voters now, an increase of nearly 40,000 from 2016, according to county staff. The election office is planning for increased voter turnout of up to 90% compared to the 72% of voters who participated in 2016.
The election office needs 950 to 1,000 election workers to staff the polling places, Scarborough said. Election officials will implement safety measures, such as installing barriers, encouraging election officials to wear a mask and offering voters a mask if they don’t have one. Officials will also use single-use privacy folders and sanitize pens.
“It’s definitely a new challenge,” Scarborough said. “I’m very happy and confident with our team.”
For the June election, the county’s public works department helped install protective barriers at polling places, which will be in place for the presidential election, Scarborough said.
“So when I walk into vote, there is a large screen,” he said. “Most people use a driver’s license that poll workers can scan.”