In a year when every seat in the General Assembly was up for grabs, Virginia voters turned out en masse. So did the Election Day problems.
Tuesday’s turnout rates weren’t reported at press time, but local election officials said turnout was “huge” and said they could “barely keep up.”
While Virginia has elections every year, there is no statewide election on the ballot this year. That is why the election for all 140 legislative seats traditionally has Virginia’s lowest turnout in the four-year electoral cycle. Still, the turnout Tuesday was described as “heavy” in parts of the Richmond region.
Virginia Elections Commissioner Chris Piper did not have statewide turnout data when speaking to reporters Tuesday night, but said initial indications were that more ballots were cast than in 2015 when 29% of registered voters took to the polls.
The state posted a 60% turnout rate last year when voters re-elected U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and flipped three U.S. House of Representatives seats from Republican to Democrat.
Chesterfield County’s turnout was especially high for this off-year election. The county had a turnout rate of 35%, according to data from county Registrar Constance L. Hargrove as of 4 p.m. In 2015, the last comparable election, the county’s turnout rate was 32%.
The First Presbyterian Church precinct in Richmond’s West End ran out of ballots for the state Senate race where Sen. Jennifer McClellan, a Democrat, was seeking re-election against libertarian Mark Lewis. The church also serves as a voting precinct for the Senate’s 10th District, in which Sen. Glen Sturtevant, R-Chesterfield, faced Democrat Ghazala Hashmi.
Voters had two options: wait or return later.
“The fact that they ran out of ballots at all, much less that it happened at 8 a.m. when the polling station had been open for only two hours, was a source of frustration for many,” said Jennifer Daglio, one of the voters affected by the ballot shortage.
Richmond’s general registrar, J. Kirk Showalter, said the precinct had 150 ballots for the 9th District to start because the city’s internal calculations were that the 10th District, where Sturtevant was in a tough re-election fight, would see a higher turnout. Once they found out about the shortage of 9th District ballots, Showalter said, 1,200 more were sent to the church. Those arrived at 8:14 a.m., she said.
“Our apologies to any voters who were inconvenienced because of this,” Showalter said.
An unknown number of voters in six Stafford County precincts cast ballots in the wrong races.
Virginia Elections Commissioner Chris Piper said that voters were assigned to the right districts in the state’s database, but when that data was downloaded into precinct poll booths, an error resulted in voters being offered wrong ballots. Piper said the issue was resolved within the hour.
“Unfortunately, some voters had ballots in wrong districts. We still don’t have exact numbers,” Piper said, adding that the state won’t have clarity on how the error occurred “for some time.”
Because ballots are not tied to voters’ identities, erroneous ballots can’t be corrected, nor can voters who were offered wrong ballots cast votes in the right races.
It’s the second consecutive General Assembly race in which voters in Stafford County received incorrect ballots. In 2017, elections for the same three House districts were affected by an error in the state database that resulted in voters getting incorrect ballots.
One of the 2017 races — the 28th House District contest between Del. Bob Thomas, R-Stafford, and Democrat Joshua Cole — came down to just 73 votes. The state determined 147 people received wrong ballots, but a court ruled it would not intervene.
Cole ran again Tuesday in the 28th House District, this time defeating Republican Paul Milde, a former Stafford County supervisor. Milde defeated Thomas in the GOP primary.
The other races potentially affected were the contest for the 2nd House District between Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, and Republican Heather Mitchell; and the contest for the 88th House District between Del. Mark Cole, R-Spotsylvania and Democrat Jess Foster.
Milde campaign manager Dustin Curtis said he is “deeply disturbed by the ballot irregularities.”
Absent in Accomack
A lawyer for the Republican Party of Virginia has made a complaint to the Accomack County commonwealth’s attorney alleging a Democratic voter illegally filled out absentee ballots for others.
Republicans have asked a judge to temporarily stop the Accomack County Electoral Board and registrar from counting any absentee ballots under review by the prosecutor, according to a court filing made Monday in Accomack Circuit Court.
Christopher Marston, an attorney for the Republicans, made the complaint about ballots to the prosecutor on Oct. 15, according to the filing.
In Accomack County, on the Eastern Shore, Del. Rob Bloxom, R-Accomack, defeated Democrat Phil Hernandez, and Sen. Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomack, was victorious over Republican Elizabeth Lankford.
Gary C. Byler, the lawyer who made the request for an injunction, said that in one case, a woman went to get an absentee ballot for the Tuesday election and learned that someone she didn’t know had already requested one for her.
Marston sent a letter to Commonwealth’s Attorney J. Spencer Morgan alleging that a woman completed absentee ballots for others.
She “appears to have been filling out by mail absentee ballot requests for other voters, submitting those requests to the Registrar, visiting the homes of those voters once their ballots have arrived, filling out the ballots and returning the voted ballots to the Registrar by mail,” Marston’s letter said.
Marston’s letter named Debra Wharton of Temperanceville in Accomack as the woman who allegedly gathered the ballots. Reached by phone Tuesday morning, Wharton referred questions to the Democratic Party of Virginia. A party spokesman had no comment.
Website goes blank
Shortly after polls closed at 7 p.m., the Virginia Department of Election’s website had issues displaying live results. The website instead showed an error page than stemmed from internal issues, said Piper, the elections commissioner.
It was “not an issue from external factors,” Piper said. The site was restored and fully functional by 8:50 p.m.