Virginia officials weigh precision vs. speed in reporting election results

Published 11:57 am Friday, January 14, 2022

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By Graham Moomaw

Virginia Mercury

Virginia is moving closer to joining the dozens of other states that track absentee votes down to the neighborhood level, a change that would give researchers, news outlets and campaigns better insight into local election data and voting trends.

But some officials have warned that, if implemented the wrong way, it could mean slower results on election night.

The explosion in absentee voting, fueled by the pandemic and Virginia’s newly relaxed rules on early voting, has come with a slight downside: Analysts can’t pinpoint exactly where those votes are coming from. 

Currently, absentee votes, which made up nearly 60% of the total ballots cast in the 2020 presidential election, are counted in one city- or county-wide pot instead of being sorted by neighborhood voting precincts like regular ballots cast on Election Day. Another 1.2 million absentee ballots were cast in the 2021 elections, or about 36% of the total votes cast for governor.

In a new state report, election officials laid out a plan for how all ballots from a particular neighborhood could be reported in a single tally, regardless of how or when they were cast. Though the procedures could vary by locality, the change would require registrars to create unique ballot styles for each precinct, potentially complicating the task of printing and distributing ballots but allowing absentee ballots to be sorted based on the voter’s home precinct.

For smaller localities, the report notes, that may just mean having dozens of stacks of ballots to pull from based on a voter’s address. For larger localities with more resources, according to the report, it could mean on-demand ballot printers, where a ballot is printed on the fly as a voter is checked in, reducing the possibility for human error.

At a meeting last summer to discuss the change, several local election officials said adding the extra work while votes were being counted would slow down their ability to tabulate the results political watchers rely on to quickly determine who won.

“If the goal is to have results as quickly as possible, that is easier on election night if we’re simply producing results and not drill-down, precinct-specific results,” said Wise County Registrar Allison Robbins.

Jim Nix, a member of the Charlottesville Electoral Board, suggested the complete data didn’t need to be available in the hours after polls close, when the focus is on declaring winners. Deep dives into the data, he said, usually come later.

“They don’t need it on election night,” he said. “Precinct-specific data is important for the next election.”

Proponents say making the change would boost public confidence by minimizing election-night “mirages,” where a candidate might appear to be winning based on precinct results but the numbers shift dramatically when big batches of absentee ballots come in.

Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, who sponsored the bill requiring precinct-level absentee tracking, insists the data should be available on election night.

“Maintaining a murky central absentee pool on election night that then gets cleaned up afterward still leaves you with a murky central absentee pool on election night that leads to confusion among voters,” Suetterlein said in an interview.

Election officials in other states have shown it’s possible to have complete data immediately, Suetterlein said.

“And I’m optimistic that Virginia can do the same,” he said.

The state report says election-night slowdowns could occur because the more ballot styles a locality has to handle, the longer it takes for voting machines to produce the physical tape showing the results. The report notes some localities may need to upgrade voting software at considerable expense.

The proposal, which cleared the state Senate last year with bipartisan support but failed in the Democratic-led House of Delegates as some called for more time to study the topic, is expected to pass in some form during the upcoming legislative session with Republicans retaking control of the House and the governor’s office.

The disjointed data had a direct impact on the recent redistricting process, forcing map-drawers to rely on older election results because more recent numbers had become unusable. In a memo late last year to the Supreme Court of Virginia, map-drawers Bernard Grofman and Sean Trende noted they had to use data from the 2017 statewide elections to measure the partisan tilt of new legislative districts.

“We would have preferred to have available the 2021 data,” the map-drawers wrote.

Under the current setup, they wrote, precinct-level data “may never be accomplished with precision.”