The press is generally expected to scrutinize government and hold it accountable for efficiently and effectively serving the public. But it’s equally important to give credit and even praise when it’s deserved, and that’s exactly what’s required now with regard to the Virginia General Assembly, the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, the Office of Elections, the Electoral Board, County Registrar Michelle White and all those who had a hand in running a truly impressive early voting operation this year.
At the time of this writing, on the eve of Election Day, more than 162,000 Prince William County residents had already cast their ballots during an early voting period that began on Sept. 18. That’s 56% of Prince William voters and three times the number of early votes cast during the last presidential contest in 2016.
Such an feat does not happen by accident. Indeed, it was only a eight years ago – in the 2012 election – that Prince William County made national news for all that went wrong on Election Day. We had too few electronic voting machines and too few polling places, resulting in long lines that had hundreds of voters waiting for hours to cast their ballots.
Fortunately, a lot has changed since then. For starters, the county supervisors appointed a special commission in 2013 to examine what went wrong. As a result of its work, the county added 14 polling places and ditched the electronic voting machines for paper ballots and optical scanners, which are both faster and more secure. Still more polling places and precincts were added in subsequent years to keep up with population growth.
During the 2016 presidential election, the county’s Office of Elections made a big push to encourage as many people as possible to vote early to avoid a repeat of the 2012 debacle. That, too, was a big success, as Prince William led the state in early votes cast in 2016.
But the biggest changes came over the last two years, when the Democratic-led General Assembly overhauled to Virginia’s election laws to make voting easier. Most significantly, they allowed all registered voters to cast an early ballot without an excuse.
Lawmakers voted this year to waive the witness requirement for mailed-in absentee ballots and to pay for return postage. When concerns about the Postal Service arose, lawmakers took the extra step of requiring each locality to provide ballot drop boxes for voters to use instead of the mail.
The work continued at the county level, where the board of supervisors boosted funding for this year’s election and doubled the county’s early voting sites from four to eight, three of which opened as soon as early voting began. The wisdom of that decision was immediately apparent when Fairfax County voters – who initially had only one early polling place – waited in hours-long lines to cast their ballots while Prince William County voters did not.
On Oct. 19, the county opened the other five polling places including one at the James J. McCoart building that was drive-thru only, which was an instant hit. It offered a socially distant way for voters to cast their ballots without having to step foot inside a polling place.
The Office of Elections, led by White, did a commendable job of staffing the early polling places with enough people to ensure an efficient process. Most had more than a dozen on hand at all times, numbers made possible in part because staff from other county departments volunteered to help out – even on Saturdays, we’re told.
Still other staffers worked behind the scenes to keep up with thousands of requests for mailed absentee ballots and to process those ballots when they returned.
And did we mention they performed all of this work in the middle of a global pandemic?
Many have called this the most consequential election of our lifetimes, and there’s much anxiety – rightly so – about the country’s political divide, which can often seem bleak.
But if there’s one bright spot in this challenging election year, it’s been the election process itself, which has been nothing but impressive. Voters, too, should be credited for caring enough about their country to get out and vote.