Arlington County expects mail-in voter numbers to surge this year, with about 25% of voter turnout to be from mail-in ballots.
The Virginia Department of Elections increased mail-in ballot accessibility, and Arlington residents seem to be relying on them more now than before.
As of Nov. 7, about half of the 14,000 mail-in ballots requested have been returned. The Office of Elections is expecting a voter turnout of 56,000 in total.
Among these accessibility changes, Arlington voters who are voting by mail this year will no longer have to get a witness signature on the envelope or have a witness present while filling in their ballot. Now, only a birthdate and the last four numbers of a social security number are required.
Tania Griffin, Arlington County’s Office of Elections communications and outreach coordinator, said only 9% of voters submitted absentee ballots or mail-in ballots in the 2019 Arlington election prior to the pandemic. In last year’s election, 14% of Arlington voters who voted submitted a mail-in ballot.
This jump came after the Virginia Department of Elections eliminated in 2021 a requirement that voters submit a “valid reason” for requesting a mail-in absentee ballot. These reasons included having a disability, being out of town, or observing a religious holiday.
Griffin said mail-in ballot requests surged during 2020 because of COVID-19. About 80% of Arlington voters voted by mail or voted early in 2020.
This year’s elimination of the witness signature requirement comes only two years after the Virginia Department of Elections reinstated the requirement following the pandemic. Griffin said that since people were quarantining during the pandemic, the need for a witness was temporarily waived.
Griffin said some residents may be confused about the changes and wants to clear up any confusion.
“We try to make it as clear as possible with our instructions,” Griffin said. “The only change is having the last four of your social.”
Griffin said these changes make voting more accessible.
“Based on the percentage of people who vote by mail now, it’s obviously more accessible, because you don’t have to provide an excuse,” Griffin said.
Stephen Baker, a representative from the Arlington County Democratic Committee, said the elimination of a valid excuse requirement and the witness signature are not the only reasons mail-in ballots are more accessible.
“I go around and knock on doors and talk to voters,” Baker said. “Quite often, when you meet with maybe an older person or a person with a disability, it’s really their best and only opportunity to vote, so it’s good that we have that option.”
Baker said he has met voters who use mobility devices, wheelchairs, scooters or have vision problems, and they all take advantage of mail-in ballots.
“They can fill out their ballot at home with the help of whatever tools they have at home, versus having to take someone into the polls with them,” Baker said. “It really helps a wide range of people.”
Baker said getting rid of the witness signature was a “step in the right direction.”
“We’re happy to see when laws make it easier,” Baker said.
Jessica Siles is the deputy press secretary for Voters of Tomorrow, an organization that engages younger generations politically. Siles said young voters also benefit from the mail-in ballot option.
“Young people have certain barriers to voting,” Siles said. “Young people report transportation as an obstacle to voting. Anytime we can alleviate an obstacle, or make it easier for young people to vote, they’re more likely to vote.”
Arlington’s household survey report published in 2021 indicated that 12% of Arlington households were car-less in 2017 to 2018.
Siles also said eliminating barriers, like requiring a witness signature and a reason for requesting a mail-in ballot, encourages college students to vote as well.
“It’s a way for college students to vote where they call home without having to drive a long way or take a plane,” Siles said. “It’s a way for them to be involved civically in their community.”
Don Gurney, voter service chair and a member of the board of directors for the League of Women Voters, said despite claims of inaccuracies and errors in the mail-in ballot voting system, the system is just as secure as voting in-person.
“There are claims that people return multiple ballots, that ballots are printed from China, and are just dumped into the system,” said Gurney. “Even if that really happened, the system would catch it.”
Gurney said Arlington County’s Office of Elections tracks a mail-in ballot’s every move.
“There’s no way for somebody to come up with a truckload of ballots and dump them in and have them counted, because they know where the ballots went and they know whether they came back or not,” said Gurney. “They track them all the way.”
Gurney lives in a senior living facility. As a voter, he said voting by mail has increased his own accessibility to vote. He also said several of his neighbors vote by mail too.
One Arlington voter, James Scarborough, said he believes voting by mail is not as secure as voting in person.
“I think it makes fraud a little easier,” Scarborough said.
Scarborough said he will be taking to the polls Tuesday.
“We have a lot of people who are poll watchers,” Scarborough said. “They catch things.”
Arlington residents Nick and Cory Giacobbe lived overseas for 30 years working for the foreign service. They used mail-in ballots to stay active in Arlington politics while they were gone.
“We’ve used them pretty much exclusively for the past decade, and we just came back last year,” Nick Giacobbe said. “Arlington does a really good job of getting the ballots out in time to get them back.”
The Giacobbes said Arlington has also made mail-in ballots more accessible by making mail-in ballots available early over email.
“You get the ballot by email, and then you print it out and follow the instructions,” Cory Giacobbe said. “It’s like doing origami.”
Cory Giacobbe said eliminating the witness signature might affect voter identity security, but she said the likelihood of someone “sending in a bunch of ballots for people they know” is low. Overall, the couple said they think doing away with the requirement makes voting more accessible.
“It eliminates the need to have a co-conspirator,” Nick Giacobbe said.
Another Arlington resident, Henry McFarland, said a witness signature is not required in other states, so it should not be required in Virginia.
“The few times I’ve used a mail-in ballot, not in the state of Virginia, I wasn’t required to do that, and I think it would have been burdensome if I had to,” McFarland said.
All mail-in ballots must be postmarked by election day, Nov. 7, and Arlington County’s Office of Elections needs to receive it in their office by Nov. 13 at noon. The Arlington County Republican Committee did not return calls seeking comment.