How Three High Schoolers and a Senator Are Making it Easier for Virginians to Vote
ALEXANDRIA, VA — Everybody talks about close electoral races, but few examples are as stark as last cycle in Virginia when a tie-breaking drawing left the House of Delegates in Republican control after a painstaking vote count found two candidates tied at 11,607 votes.
Turnout in Virginia is way up in recent years, but non-presidential elections are still smaller affairs and fewer than half of registered voters cast their ballots in 2017. With the partisan balance of power in the Commonwealth’s General Assembly once again on the line on November 5, turnout will determine which legislators have a say in redistricting plans for 2021 after a court ruled that 11 legislative districts have been unconstitutionally gerrymandered.
Enter Robert Greene, a recent graduate of Thomas Jefferson High School, and his former classmates, junior Raunak Daga and sophomore Sumanth Ratna. Along with the non-profit Vote Absentee Virginia, the three helped create and promote the new website eAbsentee.org to reach more eligible voters who might not cast a ballot due to hardship. Virginia voters can use the site to apply for an absentee ballot through October 29.
“We like the idea of using technology to strengthen our democracy,” said Daga, a lead developer on the site. “If you work two jobs, or if you don’t have a car, it can be hard to get to a polling place on Election Day. Voter turnout is pretty low — why shouldn’t a qualified voter be able to get a ballot by mail to fill out at home or their dorm room?
The genesis of eAbsentee.org — which simplifies the absentee application process and gives candidates tools to promote mail ballot applications — came from the electoral efforts of Senator Scott Surovell. Virginia first began accepting electronically-signed absentee ballots applications in 2015, and as Surovell went door-to-door to win election, he saw voters’ need for easier voting access. Using an iPad and a website he put together with colleagues, Surovell could help voters apply for an absentee ballot on the spot. Hundreds did.
eAbsentee.org is the next generation of that early effort. This year, Surovell enlisted supporter Larry Rouvelas, President of Vote Absentee Virginia, to make a more user-friendly site where voters could apply directly and to lead outreach to low-turnout groups across Virginia.
“One of the biggest questions we get from voters is what to do if they can’t vote on election day — eAbsentee makes it really easy to answer that and make sure they get the support they need to apply for that absentee mail ballot,” said Rohan Genge, campaign manager for Irina Khanin in House of Delegates District 29, who recently began sharing the site with voters. “Students, folks who are caring for a parent or loved one outside of the district, this can really help them out.”
Author’s note: The Adriel Hampton Group is providing digital strategy services in Virginia, including to Vote Absentee Virginia and Irina for Delegate.