Absentee voting surges this year

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A record number of voters in Virginia, Maryland and the District have cast absentee ballots this year to avoid long lines and potential problems when the polls officially open today.

In Virginia, more than 240,000 voters have requested absentee ballots, particularly from areas where many military personnel reside. More than 175,000 have returned their ballots. In the 2000 presidential election, about 150,000 Virginians voted by absentee ballot.

In Maryland, more than 130,000 voters have requested absentee ballots. Elections officials have not counted how many ballots they have received from voters. In 2000, 96,366 Maryland residents cast their votes by absentee ballot.

Election officials in the District didn’t have absentee ballot figures available yesterday, but D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics spokesman Bill O’Field estimated the numbers are up from 2000.

Barbara Cockrell, assistant secretary of the Virginia State Board of Elections, said Virginia Beach, which has a heavy military population, has had a “very high” number of absentee ballots.

Miss Cockrell said a high percentage of absentee ballots also are being cast in Northern Virginia, another area where many military families reside.

Alexandria easily eclipsed its previous record of about 4,200 absentee voters in 2000 with more than 7,000 who voted early for today’s election, said Tom Parkins, the city’s registrar of voters. “We have a lot more interest,” he said.

Virginia does not track the demographics of absentee voters. No exit polling in Virginia, Maryland or the District was available yesterday.

Some officials attribute the rise in absentee voters to the overall increase in registration. All three jurisdictions reported record new voters this year.

Since 1980, absentee voting has accounted for an average of 5.4 percent of the total votes cast in presidential elections, according to figures analyzed by the Associated Press.

By contrast, absentees have comprised an average of 3 percent of the total vote in nonpresidential elections in the past 10 years.

Both presidential candidates this year have encouraged their supporters nationwide to vote early. Volunteer groups in the region have handed out absentee voter applications and in some cases helped voters get to the polls so they could cast absentee ballots in person.

In Virginia and the District, absentee voting is available at most precincts or by mail, as long as criteria are met. In Maryland, absentee voters can cast ballots only by mail.

The guidelines differ slightly among the three jurisdictions, but voters in general are allowed to cast absentee ballots if they will be absent from their county on Election Day because of school or military service, or because of an illness or death in the family.

Virginia localities will count absentee ballots tonight. Local election officials must have the absentee ballots by the time polls close at 7 p.m. for the ballots to be counted.

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