In the 2016 Presidential Election, 31% of Arlington voters voted by absentee ballot, the highest percentage of all localities in Virginia. Impressive, but while Arlington’s high absentee percentages have consistently grown over the past 20 years or so to be among the highest in the state, back in 1969 a different county bore the moniker of “absentee ballot capital of Virginia,” and not in a very complimentary way.
According to a 1969 article in The Washington Post, “Voting is probably the favorite local sport. Nearly all the men and women and apparently some of the children have signed up. Some voters are so dedicated they go on casting ballots post mortem.”
Signing up deceased voters was commonplace at the time in some of Virginia’s more rural localities, as was the practice of obtaining absentee ballots for the elderly and infirm. In fact, the headline of the article reads “Feeble, Illiterate and Young Vote In State’s Absentee Ballot Capital.” Attempts to prosecute fraud were fruitless, as voters who had initially submitted sworn statements that they had not requested ballots would consistently rescind them prior to trial.
Under Virginia law in effect at the time, any registered voter could apply for a mailed ballot, which opened to door to fraud by unscrupulous individuals. At the time, most voter registration was conducted and maintained by precinct registrars. Electoral boards could not easily verify the validity of these registrations when they received requests for absentee ballots.
This system didn’t change until the early 1970s, when precinct registrars were eliminated in favor of a central registration system in each locality. Later in the 1970s, local records were transferred to the state to create one of the country’s first statewide registration databases.
During the same time period, the General Assembly tweaked absentee laws to try to eliminate fraud. Certain voters — specifically military and overseas voters, students, and those who were sick or disabled — were still permitted to request ballots by mail. In 1988, the law changed to require persons who would be away for business or vacation to vote absentee only in person at their registrar’s office. This provision was later amended to allow all voters with legally acceptable reasons — there are now 21! — to vote absentee either by mail or in person.
In the 1968 Presidential Election, about 2,300 mail ballots were cast in Page County, out of about 7,300 registered voters. That’s 31% of those voting, the same percentage Arlington had in 2016!
48 years later in 2016, Page County had 908 absentee voters, out of 10,824. That’s 8%, a respectable and relatively average percentage for a semi-rural Virginia county, even if a far cry from the notorious high of 1968.
Posted July 19, 2018 by Linda Lindberg