Virginia’s split precinct problem

by Brooks Braun

The 2012 election will soon be upon Virginia. If past elections and the current political climate are reliable guides, the level of participation will once again place enormous pressure on the election administrative apparatus. Will Virginia be prepared? One ominous reason to be skeptical is the recent explosion of split precincts following from the2011 redistricting process.

Split precincts are a normal outcome of every redistricting process. The precinct itself is usually the smallest unit of administration in an election district. However, when the General Assembly draws new district lines that do not follow old precinct lines, a split precinct is created.  In such a precinct, voters don’t all vote for the same offices. For example, some voters in the precinct might vote for a representative to fill state senate seat A, while other voters, in the same precinct, vote for a representative to fill state senate seat B. Precincts can also be split more than once (once by a concessional district line and once more by a state senate line, for instance). It’s like having multiple precincts in one.

According to research done by the Virginia State Board of Elections (SBE) staff, the 1991 Virginia redistricting plan created 102 split precincts from a total of 2133 precincts and the 2001 plan created 75 split precincts from a total of 2239 precincts, healing some of the 1991 splits. In 2011, there are 2376 total precincts in Virginia. Of those, the most recent round of redistricting carved up 224 precincts into more than one piece; three times the number of split precincts created in the last round of redistricting. The large uptick is due mostly to improved technology allowing residence-by-residence precision in redistricting, a partisan desire to gerrymander protected districts, and a divided state legislature that is likely to have promoted that kind of partisan
entrenchment
on both sides of the aisle.

There are ways to heal these splits. City and county localities can attempt to redistrict their precincts to match more closely the districts created by the General Assembly. Localities could also wait till the next legislative session to petition the General Assembly to change its district boundaries.  However, the bulk of those splits are likely to stay. Again, according to SBE research, the average number of healed splits occurring after the 1991 and 2001 redistricting rounds was only 13.5%. At that rate the number of split precincts in 2020 will be a still considerable 194.

So what is the big deal? Split precincts exacerbate three problems already facing election administrators in Virginia: lack of money, lack of personnel, and lack of confidence.

Like every state, Virginia is tightening her budget, and that means fewer funds for the localities responsible for administering elections. Split precincts increase the costs per precinct, adding to overall election costs. First, splits may require additional space, voting machines, pollbooks, and officers of election. Splits also require other materials, including signage to make sure voters end up getting the correct ballots. These election day costs are added to the pre-election day cost of educating voters about the new district lines and voting procedures. Even if precinct lines are adjusted to heal the split, new voter cards must be printed and sent to notify voters of the new precinct lines. Together these costs and others bring the estimated cost per split to somewhere between $18,000 and $25,000.

As mentioned, split precincts also require additional personnel in order to be effectively managed. While on off-year elections (when turnout is relatively low) elections officials can usually find enough people to work the polls, presidential election years (like 2012) see chronic shortages. This is even worse in light of the fact that the workers that precincts do get tend to be older folks that lack experience working with technology. Split precincts require even more (and younger) workers to work increased numbers of electronic pollbooks and voting devices efficiently.

Finally, split precincts can be confusing to voters and inspire distrust in the election process. Voters may be confused about which line they have to stand in. They may wonder why their neighbor is standing in a different line or has a different ballot than they do. Confusion may even make them doubt they are at the right precinct or keep them home out of frustration. Poorly funded, staffed, and run split precincts may cause voters to think that voting in being conducted in an inaccurate manner, and rightfully so. The greater complexity of the split precinct is bound  to generate mistakes. The more splits, the more likely these mistakes become in the absence of adequate funding and well-trained personnel to prevent them.

Hopefully, the situation is not as dire as portrayed above. Given the extraordinary number of splits, localities may realize the necessity of working hard to eliminate as many as possible before the next major election. With a sufficiently decreased number of splits elections administrators will be able to put their best officers of election in those precincts. Through early preparation and thorough training Virginia elections officials may be able to avoid disaster. But they better act fast–the election will be here before they know it.

Brooks Braun is a third-year law student at William & Mary.

permalink: http://electls.blogs.wm.edu/2012/01/25/va-split-precincts

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