Voters assigned to the wrong district could have made the difference in some House of Delegates races last year that were decided by razor-thin margins, allowing Republicans to hang onto control of the chamber.

To avoid a repeat in this year’s congressional races, several of which are projected to be tight, state elections officials have taken steps to notify local registrars of potential misassigned voters.

But state law limits what the Department of Elections can do and passes the responsibility on to local registrars, who may not have the resources to make fixes correctly or quickly. The law also doesn’t give the department any way to check registrars’ work.

Over the summer, the Department of Elections alerted local registrars to potential cases of misassigned voters in congressional districts. Potentially misassigned voters were found on the borders of every congressional district, according to a presentation from the Board of Elections

Those problems have probably been fixed, since absentee voting started in September, said Walt Latham, president of the Voter Registrars Association of Virginia, a professional organization for the state’s local registrars. 

But there’s no way to know for sure: The state can’t, and isn’t required to, check voter assignments. It’s up to the individual registrars in the state.

In June, Chris Piper, commissioner of the Department of Elections, said he felt confident with the work the department did on the congressional districts and localities “had done a great job,” according to minutes of the meeting.

Checking voter assignment is an expensive and time-consuming job, Piper said at the June meeting, and the Department likely couldn’t do it regularly with its current staffing.

But making sure voters are assigned to the right district has turned out to be key in competitive races. Misassigned voters could have changed the outcome several House of Delegates races last November and the Virginia congressional elections this year could play a deciding role in whether the U.S. House of Representatives flips in favor of the Democrats.

In the 7th District near Richmond,  Republican U.S. Rep. Dave Brat and Democrat Abigail Spanberger are neck-and-neck. Independent polling in the 5th District  shows one percentage point between Democrat Leslie Cockburn and Republican Denver Riggleman. And in Hampton Roads’ 2nd District, polling also shows a tight race Republican U.S. Rep. Scott Taylor and Democrat Elaine Luria.

Earlier, this year, The Washington Post found dozens of voters in a Newport News apartment complex were placed in the wrong district by local registrars for the 2017 House of Delegates elections. There were enough voters that they could have swung the election in favor of Democratic candidate Shelly Simonds, The Post estimated.

Instead, that race was resolved by drawing a name out of a hat. Republican incumbent David Yancey kept his seat, which meant Virginia Republicans kept their majority in the House of Delegates.

In the 28th District near Fredericksburg, 147 people voted in the wrong district and Republican Del. Robert Thomas won by a margin of only 37 votes, an analysis by The Washington Post found.

Not an easy fix

Under Virginia law, the state Department of Elections can provide guidance and resources to local registrars, but the local offices are ultimately responsible for making sure voters are placed in the correct districts.

But fixing the problems aren’t always easy for registrars.

The state’s maps are drawn in a computer system, without considering boundaries that aren’t always clear on the ground, said Latham, who is York County’s general registrar.

There can be landmarks in the way of theoretical boundaries; there may be unofficial agreements about where certain towns and cities begin and end. And when registrars consult the U.S. Census map — which is what the state says to do when things are unclear — it doesn’t always line up with what the state has drawn.

It means the registrar has to make the decision as to where a voter should vote and the decision isn’t always correct, the Board of Elections presentation stated.

Deciding where voting district boundaries are supposed to be isn’t a registrar’s job, Latham said, and they don’t have the training to do it correctly. The current process turns registrars into cartographers, who have to piece together maps from what the state draws, Census data, local records and physical landmarks.

“We’re basically having to resolve something the state and localities should have sorted out long ago,” he said. “I should just be placing people in a district.”

Latham said the easiest fix would be for the state to hammer out clear voting boundaries. Right now, the law leaves that up to registrars when there’s a dispute.

“It’s 2018,” Latham said. “Why can’t we have an official boundary line?”

Vice-chair of the Board of Elections Clare Belle Wheeler noted in June that the former Commissioner of the Department of Elections, Edgardo Cortés, knew about misassigned voters, but didn’t fix the issue.

Some board members said in June they felt like they should have more power to do something about voter assignment issues, but also noted fixing the problem would require legislative action.

Wheeler pointed to a bill in the 2018 General Assembly that would have forced localities to review all voter assignments, make corrections as needed, submit a report to the Board of Elections, which would then submit a report to the General Assembly.

The bill, carried by Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, was continued in committee to next year’s session.