(WJHL) – The 2020 Presidential Election brought voters out like never before, breaking records in several districts across the region.
Sullivan County’s previous record, set in 2016, was shattered by at least 11,000 votes, according to election administrator Jason Booher. The election drew more than 74,000 voters to the polls, equalling a 70% turnout.
This is part of a trend in Sullivan County, Booher says. Presidential elections appear to be drawing more voters to the polls.
“I’ve seen it continue to rise, it’s never, you know, ebbed and flowed it just keeps going up, up, up,” Booher said. “You say, ‘how much larger can turnout get?’ or ‘How much higher can turnout get?’ but it always seems to find a way.”
In Bristol, Va., voter turnout rose to 67%, breaking the previous record of 62% set in 2008. General Registrar and Director of Elections Penny Limburg said that while presidential elections always yield higher voting turnouts, she believes that the casino referendum could have been a driving force for the city this year.
On the other end of the region, Unicoi County also reported a record turnout, with 74% of voters showing up to the polls.
Booher said that while voter turnout continues climbing for presidential elections, he’d like to see turnout increasing for other elections as well.
“Our change and impact in a matter or days or weeks at the local government level, and the same could be said at the state government level, where it takes months or years or even decades to makes strides in changes and changes in the federal government level,” he said.
“Understanding the impact that local government has on your life and how much of your federal, state and local dollars all filter back and then the people that are elected on the local level are making determinations on how that’s spent.”
Flying a plane while driving a train
Limburg said this year presented challenges unlike any other that she’s faced since she’s been managing Bristol’s elections.
Early voting is new in the Commonwealth, she said, and the office hired a third employee to help sort through the wave of absentee ballots that their office expected.
About 61% of the total turnout voted early or by mail, she said, and the three people who man the office constantly shifted strategies in the weeks leading up to Election Day.
Booher said that preparation was key to managing both record turnouts, a pandemic and increased absentee ballots. His office voted 20 “COVID-19 voters” with a special drive-thru system where poll workers donned protective equipment to take votes from voters diagnosed or exposed to COVID-19.
At the same time, poll workers faced challenges counting mail-in ballots.
“Trying to fly a plane and drive a train at the same time are difficult and that’s kind of the best analogy that I can use to explain what it’s like to exceed the expectations of the in-person voter, at the same time exceeding the expectations of the by-mail voter,” Booher said.