After hectic 2020 election, Virginia might change the way absentee votes are counted

By: - February 10, 2021 12:01 am

A curbside ballot drop box in Henrico County. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Despite lingering, and unfounded, fraud suspicions on the right, a recently issued state report called the 2020 election the “most safe, secure, and successful” in Virginia’s history.

This year, the Democratic-led General Assembly has rejected several Republican proposals to tighten election laws, while preserving several policy changes lawmakers enacted last year on an emergency basis like ballot drop boxes and looser rules for absentee voting.

But another significant election bill has drawn bipartisan support, one that would make it easier for political parties and nonpartisan data analysts to track geographic voting patterns amid a massive increase in absentee ballots. 

The legislation by Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, which has passed the Senate and is awaiting a hearing in the House of Delegates, would require absentee ballots to be counted by the voter’s home precinct. That’s a departure from the way they were handled last year, when officials lumped all absentee votes, which tilted Democratic, into one centralized tally that made it difficult to tell where they were coming from.

More than 59 percent of Virginia voters cast absentee ballots in person or by mail during the COVID-19 pandemic, compared to just under 13 percent in 2016. In addition to many people opting to vote absentee for the first time, officials were trying to implement a host of new election laws, prevent the spread of the virus, respond to an unprecedented number of election lawsuits and prep for record presidential-year turnout.

That spike led to widespread confusion when election results started coming in last November. Some national pundits suggested Virginia was swinging to the right based on numbers that appeared nearly complete with almost all precincts reporting their results. They overlooked the fact that a big chunk of the county-level results, more than half in some places, were being grouped together in central absentee precincts, not broken out by neighborhood polling place. When those tranches of ballots were reported later in the evening, results shifted heavily for Democrats in several races.

For example, the Associated Press called the U.S. Senate race for Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., shortly after polls closed, confusing many who were looking at early results showing Republican Daniel Gade ahead. In the end, Warner beat Gade by more than a dozen percentage points.

During discussion of the proposal in a Senate committee, Suetterlein said he had spoken to many Virginians who were puzzled by the way the 2020 results came in. Those concerns were different and more valid, he argued, than the ones raised by conspiracy theorists who believed baseless claims of election fraud.

“There’s lots of things we can do to restore some folks’ confidence in elections,” Suetterlein said. “But this, more than anything else, we could do so folks can clearly see the election results reflect the reality of votes being cast in their community and in other communities across the commonwealth.”

In its post-election report, the Virginia Department of Elections acknowledged the perception issue was “significant enough” that officials will work to improve the counting process to “help alleviate confusion among the public.” However, the report said the issue was not unexpected and noted that officials nationwide tried to inform the public beforehand that shifts in voting behavior, with Republicans more likely to vote in person on Election Day and Democrats more likely to vote absentee, would lead to such an outcome.

“Some voters alleged fraud, but this outcome was in fact a combination of voters for each candidate utilizing different options for voting, when those ballots were tabulated, and when the results were reported,” the state’s report says.

The bill’s final passage is uncertain. A similar proposal already stalled in the House, partly due to concerns over whether local registrars have the resources they need to quickly change their procedures without creating more problems and confusion.

Representatives for some local governments have argued the bill would create new complications for registrars, requiring them to upgrade counting machines and create unique absentee ballot styles for every combination of contests so the machines could sort them based on where the voter lives.

“I think given the uncertainties about local budgets for the upcoming year this might be something that we have to work toward over time,” said Katie Boyle, a lobbyist for the Virginia Association of Counties.

House Democrats appear more receptive to that view, and some believe the absentee reporting process can be improved with other bills. 

Lawmakers are also advancing legislation to require localities to start processing absentee ballots as they come in and separate early votes cast in person from ballots sent through the mail. The latter change would presumably allow registrars to report in-person results as soon as the polls close, without having to wait for ballots arriving in the mail on and after Election Day.

“It basically speeds up the processing on the front end,” Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, said in an interview.

Allowing absentee results to be reported earlier would address the immediate issue of everyday Virginians being flummoxed by the numbers coming in on election night, VanValkenburg said. Folding absentee ballots into precinct-level data, he said, could be more of a long-term project, especially with the state preparing to replace the aging IT system that powers voter registration and elections statewide.

Some senators said they were confident tracking absentee ballots by neighborhood isn’t an insurmountable challenge.

“I’ll tell you this, if we’re shooting rockets off into space at Wallops Island, we can figure out what precinct a voter is from,” Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, said at a committee hearing.

The state’s post-election report spotlights a number of issues that arose in 2020, such as long lines outside an early voting site in Fairfax County, a COVID-19 outbreak in the Richmond registrar’s office, a failure to follow absentee procedures in New Kent County and minor numerical discrepancies in Hopewell and Prince William County that the state had to correct. The report makes no mention of any documented fraud.

Though some conservatives have pointed to a Frederick County judge’s opinion overruling a regulatory decision to count late-arriving mail ballots with no legible postmark, the report notes officials implemented the judge’s decision prior to the election.

A Democratic-enacted law required election officials to accept mailed absentee ballots that arrived before noon on the Friday after Election Day, as long as its postmark showed it was mailed before the polls closed. Of the 2,814,378 absentee ballots cast, just 10,901 valid ballots arrived within that post-election window, according to the report. Another 2,063 arrived too late to be counted. An estimated 230 ballots arrived before the deadline but weren’t counted for lack of a legible postmark.

Election officials are also preparing to conduct Virginia’s first-ever statewide risk-limiting audit, a math-heavy exercise that involves a review of randomly selected paper ballots to create a degree of statistical confidence that election results reported by counting machines were accurate.

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.