By: James Lomonosoff
No election is perfect. Indeed, one reason the Virginia Department of Elections regularly releases a report summing up the year’s election day complaints is likely to demonstrate the fallibility inherent in any human-run electoral system. Another reason, naturally enough, is so that the number of complaints and what matter they relate to can be tracked over time. In November 2018, as that year’s after-action report indicates, there were around 25 complaints related to “ballot” incidents. What might prompt a ballot-related complaint?
One issue of note in Virginia is the prevalence of what are known as “split precincts.” Precincts are the lowest level of election district organization, defining where voters will go on election day in order to cast their ballots and which ballots they will receive. Generally speaking, the expectation is that precincts will fall entirely in one election district, meaning that each voter will receive the same ballot, containing the same candidates and the same ballot measures. However, precincts do not always follow the boundaries of municipalities, State Senate districts, or House of Delegates districts, meaning that voters must receive different ballots depending on the part of the precinct in which they live. These district-straddling precincts are what is meant by “split precincts.”
There are straightforward enough ways to run a split precinct, but they can be costlier, both in terms of time and money. Instead of determining, as each voter comes to the poll, which ballot they should be given, a split precinct could run two separate lines for two different districts (or three for three, and so on). This minimizes the risk of ballot confusion but can increase the cost of running the precinct (requiring both more staff and more voting equipment). It also makes it somewhat more difficult to tabulate vote totals when candidates appear on different ballots across more than one district (e.g., Candidate A appears on Ballots A and B of a three-district precinct, but not C). With an increase in the number of separate lines comes an increase in the number of officers monitoring those lines, which, in precincts not enjoying the use of more than one room, can lead to overcrowding. Maintaining one line encompassing all districts is speedier and less costly, but requires a polling staff thoroughly trained to properly assess each voter and determine the correct ballot to be given. No matter how one approaches a split precinct, it is clear that a normal precinct would be easier to run.
Fortunately, split precincts are not completely stuck with that status. Such precincts can be “healed” following legislative and Congressional redistricting every ten years through any of a set of generally accepted practices, mainly entailing the changing of precinct lines to match freshly drawn and approved district lines. This can be done through a General Assembly enactment, a local government adjustment (if the lesser of 250 people or 5 percent of the population of a district are affected, as specified by § 24.2-304.1), or an agreed upon boundary change with judicial approval (permitted under § 15.2-3106). An example of this process would be Chesapeake’s 2019 Voting Precinct Reorganization Project, which, among other things, proposed to heal split districts.
In an ideal system, matters run smoothly, and voters get the ballots intended for them, but elections being human processes, mistakes are bound to occur. Perhaps the most prominent instance of this was in November 2017, when some 668 voters in the Fredericksburg area were given the wrong ballots in a race where numbers were close enough for that to decide the election. In the end, their improperly cast votes were counted as valid votes (it being impossible to identify which were miscast), and voters suing for an election do-over eventually dropped their lawsuit. The Republican victory in the affected race, combined with a fortuitous random drawing in another race ensured a slim Republican majority in Virginia’s House of Delegates. An investigation following this incident suggests another source for mistakes in the field: computer error. Mapping software meant to determine to which district voters belonged failed to place voters in the right districts with disturbing frequency, particularly in areas experiencing new construction or regions where the exact coordinates for residences were not readily available.
Needless to say, it was hoped that the November 2019 elections would not face a repeat of the events of 2017. However, as voters went to the polls to vote in Virginia’s November 2019 election, the Stafford Democratic Committee publicized reports it was receiving of voters receiving the wrong ballot. Little time has passed since the election, with correspondingly little time to delve into the mix-up’s causes, but it appears to have been caused by a computer glitch affecting at least 6 split districts in Stafford County, likely tied to the mapping software describe above. Another error resulted in one split precinct receiving an insufficient number of ballots for one of its districts, but the shortage was resolved within 30 minutes. There does not appear to have been any incident equivalent to that in Fredericksburg in 2017, likely to the relief of those responsible for the state’s elections. Split districts on this vast scale are still a relatively recent phenomenon, but it seems that experience, and likely training in the wake of 2017, have enabled this year’s elections to go off without a hitch.