Review of Voter Assignments Underway

July 3, 2018

The Virginia Department of Elections has been working to identify voters who may have been assigned to incorrect voting districts. A review prompted by the discovery that some voters had been improperly assigned in districts in the Fredericksburg area that were involved in a close House of Delegates race in 2017.

The Department of Elections has conducted an initial review of Congressional district assignments, using Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping software and census block data, and provided local General Registrars with lists of voters identified as potentially assigned to incorrect districts. The Department is focusing on Congressional districts first, given the November 2018 midterm elections, but plans to undertake a similar review of House of Delegates and state Senate districts later this year. The Department has asked General Registrars to review the addresses identified as potentially mis-assigned and determine whether the district assignment needs to be corrected; although the state legislature draws state and Congressional legislative districts, the state Department of Elections has no authority over the assignment of voters to voting districts by local registrars.

Errors in district assignments can happen for a number of reasons. Some district assignments must be made manually in the state’s voter database, and assignments may be complicated by precincts that are split by state legislative or Congressional district lines. New construction may create further complications. An analysis of the issue done by the Washington Post in January cites an example of a district boundary running down the middle of a street, with homes on the left side and an empty field on the right. A registrar would likely assign the entire block to the district on the left side, since all the homes are in that district, but if homes were subsequently built on the right side of the street, they could easily, and erroneously, be included in the district with the homes on the left side of the street.

Other issues result from situations where a boundary line runs through a residence. In this case, state regulations provide that the voter’s residence is deemed to be his or her bedroom (“vote where you sleep”) – which can lead to situations in which, for example, a voter’s driveway and front door are in one locality, and she pays real and personal property taxes to that locality, but votes in another. Other cases that are difficult to resolve include situations in which the boundary line itself is not clear; for example, due to a body of water gradually shifting course over time. Jurisdictions may have informal agreements as to boundary delineations that may not mirror the census block boundaries that must be used to determine voting assignments.

Commissioner of Elections Chris Piper briefed the State Board of Elections on this issue on June 19, and his presentation is available at this link.

VACo has heard concerns from members about the potential disruption that reassigning voters may create for county residents, particularly in the “edge cases” where houses straddle voting districts or the boundary line is unclear, and has met with Commissioner Piper, along with VML, to ask that the Department continue to work with localities on an orderly process to resolve the complicated cases.

VACo is working to schedule a webinar with Commissioner Piper so that he can provide an update on the Department’s review. In the meantime, local governments should be in contact with their local registrar to understand which addresses may have been mis-assigned, and should also discuss any “edge cases” or potential boundary line adjustments with their county attorney.

VACo Contact: Katie Boyle

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