Why Virginia’s election night might be more like an election week

Why Virginia’s election night might be more like an election week
A poll worker in Richmond holds an "I Voted" sticker. (Source: Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Anyone expecting to tune in for quick results on election night should probably start thinking about it as election week, according to Virginia officials who are trying to reshape public expectations in what’s expected to be a highly unusual presidential year.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be blowout races that might be called after the polls close on Nov. 3. 

President Donald Trump lost the state by more than 5 points in 2016, and few are expecting Virginia — where Republicans haven’t won a statewide race in more than a decade — to be a major presidential battleground.

But because it could take most of the week, if not longer, to finish processing votes, competitive congressional races could remain undecided for days.

“If it’s a close race you probably won’t have results until at least Friday,” Elections Commissioner Chris Piper said in an interview.

The key difference this year is the shift to voting by mail in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. That change will make ballots coming in via mail, including many that will arrive after Election Day, more important to the outcome. All ballots postmarked before the 7 p.m. poll closing time will be counted, as long as they arrive before noon on the Friday after Election Day. 

“Ballots will be coming in all the way through Friday,” Piper said. “And then it’s going to take time to count those.”

Under a recently adopted state rule, late-arriving ballots missing postmarks will also be counted. In a tight race, legal disputes could arise over which ballots should or shouldn’t count, potentially adding more delays.

Absentee ballots will start going out in the mail on Sept. 18, and officials are urging voters to send them back early.

“We definitely highly encourage the earlier the better,” Piper said. “Get it done. And give yourself time for the process to go through. The localities will be able to better handle that mail as a result.”

Unlike some other states, Virginia law allows registrars to begin processing absentee ballots as they come in, avoiding a potential backlog of votes that can only be touched on Election Day. Early vote counts can’t be released before the polls close, preventing officials from revealing which candidates may be up or down while voting is still happening.

Though it’s unclear just how many voters will choose to participate by mail, initial numbers indicate a major spike in demand for absentee ballots.

More than 80 days before Election Day, applications for absentee ballots are already approaching 2016 levels in some parts of the state, according to an analysis by the Virginia Public Access Project. In Northern Virginia’s 8th Congressional District, applications have already exceeded the 2016 total, with 45,947 applications mailed so far this year compared to 35,848 total four years ago.

VPAP, a go-to website for many Virginia politics watchers eager for election results, is also “reviewing its election night presentation” to account for 2020′s extraordinary circumstances, according to VPAP Executive Director David Poole.