Erroneous mailings, a flood of address changes and provisional votes, a new registrar and delayed redistricting lines from the state kept Fairfax County election officials on their toes this year.
County election ballots on Nov. 8, excepting Herndon’s concurrent municipal elections, featured only one item: a congressional seat.
“This year should have been easy,” said county Electoral Board Secretary Kate Hanley told the Board of Supervisors Dec. 6.
“Instead, 2022 was an unusual year in that election activity ramped up in January and continues still with the Jan. 10, 2023, special election now under way” for the vacant 35th District House of Delegates seat, she said.
Supervisors in December 2021 approved new boundaries for the nine magisterial districts, but the schedule for redrawing the lines for House of Delegates, state Senate and congressional districts was not issued until early January, Hanley said.
Local officials needed the state attorney general’s permission before accessing the Virginia Election and Registration Information System (VERIS).
The county’s Office of Elections “scrambled” to provide supervisors with maps to implement new district lines in time for the June primary, Hanley said.
Another bump in the road came March 25, when Fairfax County General Registrar Scott Konopasek resigned and was succeeded by Eric Spicer, who “smoothly steered the office through the transition,” Hanley said.
After redistricting, the county added 17 voting precincts for a total of 264 and one more polling place for a total of 230. Despite the changes, 96.2 percent of county residents kept voting in the same location, Hanley said.
Instead of the usual long-term planning in spring and summer, the elections office “became a beehive of mailings,” she said.
“What we need to remember is the great migration caused by the COVID pandemic, combined with redistricting, meant that the Office of Elections became one of the U.S. Post Office’s biggest customers,” Hanley said.
In late May and early June, the Office of Elections mailed about 777,000 redistricting notifications to voters showing them their new districts. Approximately 75,000 of those notifications came back and had to be individually processed in VERIS, as election mail by law cannot be forwarded.
When the Virginia Department of Elections did its annual statewide National Change of Address (NCOA) mailing in early July, 23,000 notifications came to Fairfax County and about 15,000 of those residents did not respond, resulting in their being moved to the inactive-voter list, Hanley said.
In addition, 4,670 had moved out of state, she said.
Citing the small number of NCOA notifications, the elections office did its own mailing to 68,000 voters who according to the U.S. Postal Service had moved out of the county. “We should have all been in the moving business this year,” Hanley said.
Of those voters, 18,000 responded and 10,000 indicated they had moved out of state and should be removed from the county’s voter rolls, she said.
In September, after most of Virginia had finished redistricting, the state mailed out redistricting notices, but did not include the towns of Vienna, Herndon and Clifton.
The state’s follow-up mailing erroneously told 25,000 people to vote in Fairfax and the county mailed a correction to those voters, Hanley said.
The Office of Elections in early October mailed all voters sample ballots showing their correct precinct and district location, what was on the ballot and early voting information – all in four languages, she said.
Those mailings were printed on green paper instead of the usual yellow because of supply-chain problems. “There is no yellow or gold paper to be had,” Hanley said.
On Oct. 7, the office was notified that about 13,000 Department of Motor Vehicles registrations from earlier in the year had not come to the county via VERIS’s computer system. Those registrations had to be processed immediately to ensure eligible voters had not been denied absentee ballots, she said.
The office finished this task in five days with help from 15 to 20 additional people. The same thing occurred Oct. 30 and the office processed 11,000 more registrations in four days.
“Redistricting triggered the requirements for notices about the change in districts [and] the COVID pandemic triggered an unusually high number of address changes,” Hanley said. “It was also very time-consuming and costly. Consider that my budget testimony when the budget comes along.”
The office on Sept. 23 mailed 56,000 absentee ballots for the Nov. 8 election. Overall turnout was down this year, with 407,013 (55 percent) of the county’s 738,416 active registered voters voting – possibly because of the paucity of items on the ballot. Turnout was 60 percent last year and 70 percent in 2018, Hanley said.
A new law this year allowed people to register to vote and cast provisional ballots at satellite polling places after the close of books and on Election Day. This resulted in 6,041 provisional votes – including 3,913 from people who registered on Election Day – which was far more than the 2,634 received in 2021.
Officials did not count 117 provisional votes, down from 942 in 2021 and 774 in 2018.
State law allows ballots postmarked by or on Election Day to be counted if received by noon the Friday after the election. Because that Friday fell on Veterans Day, ballots received by Nov. 14 at noon had to be counted, giving the Office of Elections a day and a half to meet the Nov. 15 certification deadline, Hanley said.
“When are elections finished?” she asked. “I think it’s very clear that 7 p.m. on Election Day is not the answer.”
Hanley asked supervisors to press the General Assembly to extend the ballot-receiving deadline to two Fridays past the election.
Supervisor James Walkinshaw (D-Braddock) applauded same-day voter registration.
“I think one of our most important jobs in government is to make life a little bit easier for people, to remove bureaucracy and red tape when we can and make things simpler,” he said.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay (D) lamented that voting controversies around the nation were putting extra strain on election workers.
“It’s a really unfortunate time and circumstance in our country right now that makes an already difficult job a lot more difficult,” he said.