By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
When the door to the Alexandria Office of Voter Registration opened promptly at 8 a.m. on Sept. 18, 56 people waited in line to be among the first to cast votes in the 2020 general election.
The line moved quickly and all 56 had voted by 8:30, with a queue of people still waiting along all four sides of the adjacent courtyard.
Alexandria Democratic Party Chair Clarence Tong, who was on hand with a non-touch sample ballot, was encouraged by the turnout.
“In this 2020 election, Alexandria voters are incredibly excited to make their voices heard,” Tong said. “Since the no-excuse absentee voting took effect in July, Alexandria Democrats have been working hard to make sure Alexandria voters know about their voting options, including by mail, early in person and also on Election Day.”
By the end of the weekend, 1,047 voters had cast their ballots, according to Angela Turner, the city’s registrar.
The ballot includes the presidential contest between incumbent President Donald Trump (R) and former Vice President Joe Biden (D); incumbent Sen. Mark Warner (D) and Daniel Gade (R); incumbent Congressman Don Beyer (D) and Jeff Jordan (R). In addition, Virginians will be able to vote on two constitutional amendments: one that would establish a redistricting commission helmed by citizens and legislators and an- other that would make cars or pickup trucks owned by veterans with disabilities free from state and local taxes.
With an election occurring in the middle of a pandemic, the registrar’s office has had to adapt to changing circumstances.
“We were expecting crowds [for early voting], and we were luckily prepared for them,” Turner said. “… It was certainly interesting.”
During the 2016 presidential election, only 123 voters turned out for the first day of early voting in Alexandria, while 13,544 voted early overall.
While the first few weeks of early voting will be limited to the registrar’s office, more locations will open in late October. The registrar’s office, located at 132 N. Royal St., has implemented several safety measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic that will be common practice for all voting locations.
Staff installed plexiglass at the office’s three check-in counters, placed social distancing markers on the floor and made hand sanitizer, one-time use pens and disposable privacy folders available at ballot stations, Turner said.
“Also for Election Day, the city is coordinating with the Virginia Medical Reserve Corps, and they should be on hand to help ensure that social distancing [is happening] … masks are being worn properly, all that,” Turner said.
Early voting will be available at the registrar’s office every Saturday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. until Election Day. Residents can also vote in-person absentee at the registrar’s office Oct. 23 from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Oct. 26 to 29 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Oct. 30 from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.; and Oct. 31 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The deadline to vote in-person absentee is 5 p.m. on Oct. 31.
From Oct. 23 through 31, Charles E. Beatley Central Library, 5005 Duke St., will also open as a location for early in-person absentee voting. The library will be open to voters Monday through Thursday, from noon to 8 p.m., Friday noon to 6 p.m. and Saturday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Two other satellite locations – T.C. Williams High School’s Minnie Howard campus and George Washing- ton Middle School – will be available for early voters for two days only: Oct. 24 and 31 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., according to Turner.
The city is also preparing for an increased number of mail-in absentee ballots, after the mail-in option was expanded in Virginia in response to the pandemic.
In 2016, the city’s first batch of mailed ballots totaled 1,668 ballots. As of this weekend, the registrar’s office had sent out 31,057 ballots to those who had registered for a mail ballot. That number includes 1,284 emailed absentee ballots for active military members or registered voters who are overseas.
“This year we had to do the bulk mail facility,” Turner said. “We’ve never had to do bulk mail before.”
The deadline to register to vote in the election is Oct. 13. To register to vote online, go to www.vote.elections.virginia.gov. Residents can also download an application and mail it to the registrar’s office.
Residents can request an absentee mail-in ballot through Oct. 23 and must return the ballots by 7 p.m. on Election Day.
If residents want to return their absentee ballot in person, they can drop it off at drop boxes inside the registrar’s office or any of the satellite voting sites while they’re open, Turner said. Residents can also turn them in on Election Day at their designated polling location.
“We are in the process of trying to get an outdoor drop box installed at our office with surveillance, video cameras, all that fun stuff, but that is not currently in operation,” Turner said.
Ballots can be sent in by mail and must be postmarked by Election Day and received by the registrar’s office no later than noon on Nov. 6. Postage will be prepaid on all absentee ballots.
There are currently no plans for additional drop box locations, Turner said.
Curbside voting options have also been expanded to include residents with disabilities, residents over the age of 65 and residents exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19, according to Turner.
With the first weekend of early voting behind them and a quarter of the city’s registered voters waiting for absentee ballots, Turner said that she and her staff are preparing for an intense and challenging election season.
“Our office consumes a lot of caffeine and a lot of cookies. We run on caffeine and cookies,” Turner said.
Denise Dunbar contributed to this article.