Voters cast ballots at Main Street Station in Richmond in 2020. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
That sense of whiplash you may have felt as you watched election returns in Virginia after its largest turnout election ever —more than 4.1 million votes — is not your imagination.
Some Republicans were excited for most of Tuesday evening as ballots cast on Election Day at Virginia’s nearly 2,500 polling places were tabulated and posted. President Donald Trump appeared to be beating Democrat Joe Biden in the reliably blue commonwealth, and it appeared that Republican novice Daniel Gade might unseat U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, a former governor and the dean of Virginia’s Democratic elected officeholders.
Then along came the 2.7 million in-person and mailed absentee ballots that Virginians had been casting for weeks. That’s when reality crashed down on the state’s GOP – some harder than others.
After The Associated Press called the race for Warner the instant polls closed – and before any actual votes were counted – Gade taunted Warner and the AP, citing State Department of Elections returns that showed him ahead by 250,000 votes with 42 percent of precincts reporting.
“I got something for you, AP. You better walk it back,” he told an Election Night coterie of supporters. “Just like all of us conceded nothing during this entire race, I concede nothing. I’m coming for you, Mark Warner!”
AP’s call proved correct after the early and absentee votes were posted. Warner cruised to an 11 percentage-point victory and a third term in the Senate, and a chastened Gade tweeted a more graceful concession Wednesday morning.
Aside from his rookie mistake of sounding off with so little of the total vote counted, Gade’s frustration is relatable. Getting unofficial returns in conflicting, consecutive dumps is foreign to our experience of a sure and quick tally of the Election Day vote followed by a smattering of absentees that were rarely significant. This year, those early and absentee ballots were the tail that wagged the dog. The bifurcated process confused and vexed those who aren’t news nerds or politics junkies. Even some network pundits and cable news talking heads were flummoxed, voicing alarm nationally that Trump was blowing Biden’s doors off in a state where no Republican has won a statewide election in 11 years.
Chris Piper, Virginia’s election commissioner, says there’s got to be a better way.
“Election Day votes were tallied first. So those votes that came in before Election Day were a big dump later on in the evening, and it significantly changed things,” Piper said. “The question is how can we get those early votes in more quickly.”
For a few hours, it created a misleading impression because of the disparate ways and times Democrats and Republicans cast their ballots.
“I think one party’s voters chose to vote mostly early, and another party’s voters chose to vote mostly in person on Election Day, and it’s hard to balance the reporting of both of those at the same time,” Piper said.
The dismay created by AP’s and other news organizations’ early race calls for Democrats who appeared hopelessly behind in the Department of Elections’ online count found its way to Piper’s office Tuesday night, even though neither he nor his department has any role in proclaiming winners. That rests solely with the media.
“We got a lot of questions during the evening: ‘How can you call it for Warner when he’s down by 500,000 votes,’” Piper said. “It’s hard answering that question.”
While the counting and reporting process created consternation, Virginia executed its election very well compared to many other states. Some of the credit goes to the state’s seasoned election administrators and the time they had to work the bugs out. Much of it goes to a raft of new election reforms that took effect this year, many of them enacted last winter by a General Assembly in its first year of Democratic control.
New laws rolled back decades of Republican restrictions and liberalized absentee and early in-person voting. They eliminated the requirement to cite a reason for voting absentee rather than on Election Day and the requirement that voters present government-issued photo identification at polling places. To encourage home-sheltered voting in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, lawmakers provided funding to have stamped, self-addressed envelopes for voters to use in returning their completed ballots. And, starting this year, Virginians had the option of casting ballots in-person up to 45 days before the election at local registrars’ offices and designated local satellite voting facilities.
In some large localities, lines stretching the length of several football fields were not uncommon as the election drew nigh, but most reports showed queues moving briskly. Piper says that was because registrars had time to adapt their processes and improve efficiency.
Perhaps the most important advantage, in hindsight, has been around for a while: the leeway Virginia law gives its registrars to process and count absentee ballots before the election.
By Wednesday morning, Virginia’s preliminary tally was over and the state avoided the pressure-cooker spectacle that consumed election officials in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona, Nevada and neighboring North Carolina. Those battlegrounds had denied their local election officials the ability to get a jump on absentee counting. So, with a razor-thin margin and the presidency hanging in the balance as the whole world watched, those states began the laborious, meticulous, round-the-clock ordeal of counting absentee ballots on Tuesday. They were still at it Friday, with some eyeing another week of work.
Forty-eight hours after polls closed in Nevada, its six electoral votes remained in long-term limbo as Biden nursed a slim lead over Trump in a deliberately unhurried process in which the state’s administrators shrugged off appeals for urgency. Mail-in ballots postmarked on or before Nov. 3 can be received through tomorrow, and it could be the end of this week before complete totals are available, a Nevada election official said Thursday.
That’s not to say that Virginia’s election process is free of warts. The registrar’s sloppy handling of some absentee ballots in Henrico County raised legitimate questions about Democratic U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger’s paper-thin lead over her GOP challenger, Del. Nick Freitas, based on complete but unofficial returns in the 7th Congressional District race.
“We’re all going to sit down and look at the election and how it went,” Piper said. “There were a lot of different things we did this year that we hadn’t done in the past. Overall, I am going to credit the registrars for the hard work that they did to implement these things. But, certainly, there are ways we can get better at it and we’ll continue to work on that.”
And be glad, perhaps, that we’re not Nevada.
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