About 10 percent of the voters in the town of Louisa cast ballots in Tuesday’s town council election, which doesn’t sound like much. But that’s actually twice the share of voters who participated the last time they voted for their local officials.
Just nine of the roughly 110 ballots counted appear to have been filled out in person at the Louisa Volunteer Fire Department polling station. The rest were absentee ballots, either mailed in or delivered to Registrar Cris Watkins’ office before the 7 p.m. deadline.
“We thought it would be a very low-turnout election,” Watkins said. “But then Covid-19 hit.”
Worried about the coronavirus, the Louisa Electoral Board sent letters to all 1,081 registered voters in the town in March, encouraging them to apply for absentee ballots. For the first time, everyone could vote absentee whether or not they had an “excuse,” such as a physical disability or concrete plans to be out of town on the day of the vote.
The registrar’s office processed 265 absentee applications for the town council election. In a normal election season, even in county, statewide or national elections, the number of requests for absentee ballots is minimal. But Tuesday’s vote may be a sneak preview of what is to come this November during one of the most consequential elections in years.
The upcoming June 23 Republican Party primary for the United States Senate seat held by Democrat Mark Warner will be the next test of the absentee system. As of Monday, 170 Louisa County residents had already requested mail-in ballots for the primary. More than 200 have applied already to vote that way in the November election.
The decision to waive the requirement for voters to have an excuse to vote absentee in the May and June polls was made by state officials as a public health precaution. But after July 1, there will be no need for an excuse to vote by mail, with or without the coronavirus. The majority in the Virginia General Assembly voted last winter to eliminate what was perceived as a roadblock to some voters. Going forward, anyone can submit an absentee ballot within the 45-day period prior to the election.
“It’s almost opened the floodgates,” Watkins said. “I think we’re going to see a lot of voting by mail.”
She acknowledged that some people are suspicious of this method of exercising one’s constitutional right to vote.
“Some people want it, some don’t trust it at all,” she said. “It’s up to us to instill that trust in our voters here in the county,” she said.
Absentee voting presents a significant new cost for the county and town. Every absentee ballot mailed out costs $1.08 for postage, Watkins said. The town will reimburse the county for costs associated with this week’s poll, but the county pays for presidential elections with some state support. Watkins anticipates between 3,000 and 7,000 more absentee ballots will be cast in November in the county than in past presidential elections. That translates to a cost increase of between $3,200 and $8,700.
During the 45-day period before Election Day, people can cast absentee ballots, but they can also vote early, in person. To handle an expected crush of early voters who want to cast ballots before Election Day, the registrar’s office plans to set up a satellite office at the Louisa Arts Center beginning in mid-October.
There was still the traditional option on Tuesday to vote in person, but even there things did not feel the same. Poll workers wore masks and sat behind a plastic barrier, and a volunteer from the state Medical Reserve Corps was present to observe the proceedings. Watkins said the Virginia Health Department is providing these volunteers to train election staff how to put on masks and gloves and make sure surfaces are kept sanitized. Many poll workers are older citizens and protecting their health is a top priority.
And by the way, what about the results of Tuesday’s election?
Incumbent town councilors Danny Carter and Jessi Lassiter received 109 and 99 votes, respectively, and incoming member Sylvia Rigsby received 94 votes. There were eight write-ins.