Bill limiting split precincts moving forward

March 3, 2020

Split precincts, in which one polling place serves voters in more than one state House or Senate or Congressional district, can be confusing for voters and complicated to operate, and the General Assembly has struggled for several years to address the issue.  VACo has historically supported the ability of the General Assembly to make technical adjustments to state or Congressional district lines in order to correct errors or make other small changes to “reunite” split precincts as the simplest method to ameliorate split precincts.  However, bills to authorize such technical adjustments have been vetoed in the past, in keeping with an interpretation of the Virginia Constitution that such changes would constitute impermissible mid-decade redistricting.  Last year, a Constitutional amendment passed that would make clear that limited technical adjustments would be authorized, but this year it failed to emerge from subcommittee.

SB 740 (Obenshain and Barker) has been considered in similar form in the last several years and takes the position that localities should be responsible for making changes to local precinct lines after the completion of General Assembly redistricting in order to ensure that no precincts are split.  Under the bill, the local governing body would need to apply for a waiver from the State Board of Elections to operate a split precinct if it was unable to draw precinct lines so as to avoid operating a precinct with fewer than the statutory minimum number of voters.

When the bill was heard in subcommittee in the House Privileges and Elections Committee, VACo raised concerns about the bill’s assumption that localities can wait until the completion of General Assembly redistricting to undertake local redistricting efforts.  Counties with local elections in November 2021 will need to begin work on redrawing local district lines as soon as Census data is available (which is expected in February 2021) in order to be prepared for the November general election and potentially also August primaries (typically the legislature delays primaries that would otherwise be held in June of a redistricting year until August, although the General Assembly will need to pass legislation with an emergency clause in 2021 to do so).  If General Assembly redistricting is not completed in a timely manner, localities would be challenged to fix any precinct splits created by state redistricting (or seek waivers to operate split precincts), notify voters of any changes in precinct assignments, and make other preparations for an August primary and early voting for the November general election, which would start in mid-September.  VACo is working with the patrons on amendments to make the bill more workable for localities, particularly those counties with November 2021 elections.

VACo Contact:  Katie Boyle

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