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

A curbside ballot drop box in Henrico County.
A curbside ballot drop box in Henrico County.(Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Published: Feb. 10, 2021 at 9:37 AM EST
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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.


The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.

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