The Bulletin

Va. House panel rejects bill to require more precise absentee voting data

By: - February 16, 2021 10:04 am

Voters wait in line at an early voting center in Henrico County on Oct. 20, 2020. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

After more than half of Virginians cast absentee ballots last year, officials won’t be required to change their vote-counting procedures this year to make sure those ballots are reflected in neighborhood-level election data.

On Tuesday, a Democratic-led House of Delegates subcommittee rejected a bill that would have instructed local registrars to count absentee ballots by the voter’s home precinct rather than grouping them together in one county-level tally. The bill had passed the state Senate with bipartisan support, but House Democrats said they wanted to take more time on the issue to make sure election officials are equipped to carry out what’s being asked of them.

The proposal would have given political parties and nonpartisan data analysts a clearer view of local voting patterns and partisan shifts.

After the 2020 election, the Republican Party of Virginia complained that the murky data made it exceedingly difficult for its observers to review results for irregularities, such as comparing precinct-level results with the number of voters registered in that precinct.

Despite unfounded claims to the contrary, there has been no evidence of widespread fraud in Virginia and a state report recently declared the election the most “safe, secure and successful” in state history.

Regardless of “bad actors” spreading fraud claims, argued Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Salem, the state still benefits from having precise and transparent election data.

On Tuesday, Suetterlein pitched his bill to the subcommittee as a way to address the issue of “election night mirages” where spikes in absentee voting made it appear Republicans were crushing expectations in Democratic strongholds. Those leads eroded once cities and counties reported results in their central absentee precincts, which included all voters who cast ballots early in person or through the mail regardless but didn’t connect those voters back to their normal polling place.

The counting process led to mystifying numbers, Suetterlein said, like former President Donald Trump winning 59 percent of the few hundred votes cast in the city of Alexandria’s City Hall Precinct.

“Not because Alexandrians have newfound fondness for Republicans or even for President Trump,” Suetterlein said, noting Democrats easily won that precinct in past presidential contests, before hundreds of Democratic residents shifted to voting absentee.

Registrars and some local governments had opposed the bill, saying it could come with significant costs to upgrade ballot machines, print more ballot styles and ensure voters receive the correct ballot.

Democrats on the House panel inserted language into another absentee voting bill to require the Virginia Department of Elections to convene a work group. That group would study the issue and make recommendations in a report due Nov. 15.

“It’s not that we don’t want to do it, but we want to do it in a careful and thought-out manner,” said Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, the chairman of the elections subcommittee that voted 5-3 to “gently” defeat the bill.

VanValkenburg said other legislation that would speed up the processing and counting of early votes will hopefully alleviate the issue in the future.

The anomalies could also subside somewhat on their own if the COVID-19 pandemic eases and more people decide it’s safe to go back to casting a ballot in person on Election Day. But with less-strict voting laws now allowing anyone to cast an absentee ballot without an excuse, higher levels of absentee voting are expected to continue.

During discussion in the Senate, Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, noted that he proposed similar legislation a decade ago when it became clear to him more people wanted to vote absentee.

Suetterlein said he felt it was important to address the issue immediately. With an important election for governor coming in November, he said, he doesn’t want to spend months after that race explaining why the numbers looked odd.

“I have spent too much time trying to talk to good, reasonable folks about the election,” Suetterlein said. “Because everything that they saw on election night runs counter to every other election night they’ve seen before.”

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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.