—Analysis by Rick Naigle, Senior Process Analyst, EPEC Board of Directors
Republished from EPECTeam Newsletter
The Commonwealth’s seven weeks of early in-person voting convenience comes at a high cost to election officials, volunteers, and registrars, according to an analysis of turnout by EPEC.
During the early weeks, turnout is a trickle compared to the last two weeks; yet election officials must fully staff early voting sites throughout the seven-week period, while concurrently performing other electoral processes, including prepping central absentee processing (CAP).
EPEC Team has taken a look at early voting turnout numbers from 2020 through 2023 and found consistent trends during all four years. The bulk of Virginia’s early voters are casting a ballot in the last two weeks of early in-person voting.
Registrars have their hands full for the seven weeks. For example, during 2023’s General Election, voting localities, and political parties were scrambling to staff early voting sites across Old Dominion. Adding an extra level of complexity, registrars added Same Day Registration (SDR) specialists in 2023 to help elections officers manage compliance with SDR statutes and redistricting changes.
Two Weeks of Early Voting Should be Sufficient And Still Convenient
For the following six weeks, Virginia offers five or six days of early voting. The data show that in-person voting varies, based on election interest, which is below 10% of the total early voters for most of the time frame.
We plotted the turnout numbers. They show that most of early in-person voting occurs in the last two weeks of the early voting period. In Chart 1 we can see the % of overall early in-person votes cast by week. The sharp uptick in voting occurs in Week 6. The highest percentage of early In Person ballots are cast in Week 7.
Chart 1 – % of Total Early In Person Votes Cast Per Week
When we look at this by cumulative % of votes cast we can see that 30% to 43% of early ballots are cast in the first five weeks, and 57% to 70% are cast in the last two weeks (essentially two out of three voters show up to vote in Week 6 or Week 7).
Chart 2 – Cumulative % of Early In Person Votes Cast By Week
A reduced duration of the early in-person voting window in the last several weeks prior to election day is desirable for a number of reasons. It would reduce the overall cost of keeping early voting sites operational. It enables registrars and election staff to allocate more of their time to other electoral process tasks, including absentee ballots.
Shortening the window for in-person voting enables registrars to spread other work over a longer time period. This can reduce the risk of staff mistakes, and put quality of electoral process ahead of quantity of voting days — when the data show a low percentage of voters are taking advantage of the early weeks. Voters would also benefit from extra time to inform themselves about candidates and their positions.
EPEC recommends reducing the duration of early voting to two or three weeks. We believe two weeks of early voting would be optimal. This would enable registrars to focus staff efforts on supporting in-person and by-mail voters.
Voters Appear to Like Voting Options More Than Duration
The 2020 General Election, when Virginia shifted to no-excuse absentee for COVID, was Presidential / Federal Legislative, a historically high year for turnout. The 2021 General Election focus was Statewide for Governor and State Legislative.
Midterm elections in the 2022 General Election featured Federal seats such as Senate / Congressional, considered a historically higher turnout year than the 2023 General Election that decided control of the Assembly houses and locality races. Local races can exist any year, but generally speaking every other year is a Federal or State focus.
Despite the turnout differences based on election cycles, more than 50% of the early total early in-person voters cast a ballot during Week 6 or Week 7 of the early voting period in Virginia.
Basis For Our Recommendation
Roughly one in three voters cast a ballot during the first five weeks of early voting, and the other 2/3rds voted in the last two weeks of the seven weeks of balloting.
The numbers raise questions about whether voters need or want the early four weeks. Nearly half of all early voters voted in the last early voting week. Based on the data, and the strain, two weeks of early voting should be sufficient and still be convenient.
Take the turnout numbers, sourced from the Dept. of Elections:
Two Weeks of Early In-Person Would Still Meet Voter Needs
Registrars and Elections Officers across Virginia are trained on moving voters through lines in a reasonable time-frame. EPEC’s observation of the process shows that they scramble to fully-staff the seven-week stretch. Registrars in smaller localities have been vocal, privately and publicly, their their resources are strained throughout the 45-day voting period. We are told larger localities feel the strain too.
Trimming early in-person voting to a two-week period can still provide convenience of quantity of voting days, while staff can meet the needs of absentee-ballot processing as well. A shorter voting period can still provide the convenience desired by early voters with the added benefit of reducing concurrent electoral process tasks required of registrars, election officials, and election staffs.
After studying the impact of Early Voting for four years, EPEC Team is recommending Virginia’s Assembly improve the Commonwealth’s electoral processes by scaling back the early voting burdens on registrars.
This could be a win-win for all of Virginia’s election process to best serve voters.
Source Data: Virginia Dept. of Elections Daily Absentee Lists from 2020, 2021, 2022, and 2023