Voters stood in line for hours in the northern Virginia suburbs Friday morning to cast ballots in a bitterly contested presidential election, turning out on the first day of early voting to take advantage of a new state law making it easier to cast absentee ballots.
In Loudoun County, a line of about 200 people had formed outside the county office of elections by 8:30 a.m.
“Who’s ready to vote?” Ricky Keech, the county’s deputy registrar, shouted as the doors swung open.
The crowd, all wearing masks, responded with just a murmur of excitement. But the tension surrounding the deeply polarizing contest between President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden was clear.
Several voters said they felt a sense of urgency this year, enough to wait in line with others who weren’t always standing more than two feet away from each other. Others said they had planned to vote by mail, but became increasingly worried about that process amid Trump’s unfounded allegations that mailed voting would be “rigged” and reports that the U.S. Postal Service wouldn’t be able to process absentee ballots in time for them to be counted.
“I don’t want my vote to be thrown away,” said Adam Pierre, 57, who was voting early for the first time ever. He had originally planned to vote by mail. Yet there he was, standing in a crowded line for nearly an hour after showing up at 8 a.m. to cast a ballot for Biden and other Democrats.
“It’s worth the risk,” Pierre said. “It’s just mind-boggling to hear how our big kid of a president would go out and put out all kinds of lies and trash and say it’s a rigged system. It’s a big concern for me.”
Leo and Gayle Saulnier, who voted for Trump, said they were pleased by the turnout, despite the fact that most people in line appeared to be in favor of Biden.
The retired couple said they are worried about the pandemic, enough to want to avoid the Election Day crowds, but believe that Trump had been doing well with the economy until the coronavirus-induced recession.
“I’m very pleased with the stock market,” Leo Saulnier, 79, said. “We haven’t had to tap into our reserves.”
Most Virginia jurisdictions opened only one or two early voting sites on Friday. Others will open by mid-October in many cities and counties. Hours vary by jurisdiction and are posted on the local board of elections websites.
Virginia also began sending out absentee ballots Friday to voters who requested them by mail.
Early, in-person voting starts in Maryland on Oct. 26 and in the District Oct. 27.
Aside from the presidential election, U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat, is on the ballot in Virginia facing Republican challenger Daniel Gade, and voters will also select congressional representatives in several highly competitive races.
Moderate Democratic Reps. Abigail Spanberger and Elaine Luria are looking to hold onto the seats they flipped in 2018, in races both rated a Democratic tossup by the Cook Political Report.
On Friday, the nonpartisan political analyst site also changed its rating in the otherwise reliably red 5th Congressional District, moving the race between Republican Bob Good and Democrat Cameron Webb from “leans Republican” to a tossup.
Webb, a doctor who has worked in both the Obama and Trump White Houses, is proving unexpectedly competitive against Republican Bob Good, a former Liberty University athletics fundraiser who is campaigning as a biblical conservative and who defeated incumbent Republican Rep. Denver Riggleman in a convention this summer.
The new Democratic majorities in both chambers of the Virginia legislation passed a series of bills this year to increase access to early voting and remove restrictions on requesting absentee ballots, mostly in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
In the spring, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam signed a measure allowing Virginians to vote absentee in person or by mail without having to provide an excuse, as previously required. Earlier this month, Northam also signed legislation allowing drop boxes at local registrars where voters will be able hand-deliver their ballots.
Trump and some Republicans have repeatedly attacked both mail-in voting and the use of drop boxes, warning without evidence of widespread fraud. Northam took pains to assure Virginians this week that both measures were entirely safe — not to mention intended to keep them safe from the virus — and that election security was a top priority.
Long lines were also reported in populous Fairfax County, Va., on Friday. In Loudoun, Phyllis Appel, 78, said she came out in person because she was worried about mail-in voting.
“I’m very skeptical about how that process is going to work,” she said, after also voting for Biden. “I want every vote to count.”
As people waited outside the elections office in Leesburg, both Democrat Rep. Jennifer Wexton and her Republican challenger Aliscia Andrews showed up to garner support.
Both said they were pleased by the turnout.
“We want everybody to do what’s right for them, because we have so many options now,” said Wexton, who defeated a Republican incumbent two years ago and is favored to win again this year in her increasingly blue district. “This is the most consequential election of our lifetime.”
Wexton voted on Friday. Andrews did not cast a ballot, saying she and her husband have a tradition of voting together on Election Day. But she said she wants her supporters to vote in whichever manner makes them most comfortable.
“Whether they come early or on Election Day, I just want them to come out and vote,” Andrews said. “Every vote matters, and every vote counts.”