May 20, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus spikes vote-by-mail counts in Virginia municipal elections

Data: Virginia Department of Elections. Note: The numbers above show the total number of absentee ballots cast by mail in municipal elections in more than 100 cities and towns across Virginia in 2016 and 2020. This year’s number is preliminary and reflects the number of absentee mail ballots as of Wednesday morning. Chart: Axios Visuals

42 times as many mail-in ballots were cast in Tuesday's Virginia municipal elections than in 2016, according to new data from the sVirginia Public Access Project (VPAP).

Why it matters: The state's experience provides an idea of how massively such demand may skyrocket across the U.S. this year because of the coronavirus pandemic — and can serve as a signpost for election officials as they rush to prepare in response to the virus.

By the numbers: 61,220 absentee mailed-in ballots were cast across more than 100 cities and towns in Virginia, according to VPAP. In 2016, just 1,452 mailed-in ballots were cast.

  • In 20 Virginia towns and nine cities, more than half of votes cast were absentee.
  • Of nearly 91,000 absentee ballot applications submitted for these local elections, 96% were under the "disability or illness" category, which was what people concerned about COVID-19 were told to choose, according to data from the Virginia Department of Elections.

And these are just municipal-level elections. Demand for vote-by-mail for bigger general elections in November could be so great that some officials are beginning to worry about supply shortages.

  • "Supply chain issues are huge," Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon told Axios last week. "There are rumors about a nationwide envelope shortage."
  • Earlier this year, Wisconsin saw requests for absentee ballots surge and had to act fast to solve its own envelope shortages, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported in March.

What to watch: The spike in absentee voting seems to show that the public is paying attention to warnings by public health officials about crowds voting in person on election day.

  • One new study, for example, found that Wisconsin counties that had higher numbers of in-person voting per voting location during the primary also had higher rates of positive COVID-19 tests two to three weeks after the election compared to counties with relatively fewer in-person voters.
  • President Trump has been leading Republican efforts to fight some efforts to expand vote-by-mail, claiming without evidence that it could lead to widespread election fraud.

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