As Popularity Of Absentee Voting Grows, Depth Of Data Declines

Jun 11, 2018

Recent years have seen tremendous growth of absentee balloting in Virginia.

Parties and candidates use that data to get out the vote. But  the new trend is also making election returns less informative.

Say you request an absentee ballot, either in the mail or you walk into your local registrar’s office. When the vote is counted, your vote will not appear in the voting returns from your precinct. It’ll show up in an at-large precinct that has all the absentee votes in your city or county.

Stephen Farnsworth at the University of Mary Washington says that means we know less and less about the geography of voting at the precinct level. “People studying elections would love to have the early voting calculated within the home precinct of the voters. That would be something that would be really useful, and I can’t imagine it would cost all that much more to do.”

Election officials say the cost would probably not be all that much. But it would mean registrars would have to create separate ballots for every precinct, then keep all those on hand for when people walk in to cast a vote.

Geoff Skelley at the University of Virginia Center for Politics points to three states that have mail-in voting. “In a lot of other states, they seem to have this data. So maybe it’s possible to do it a different way. I’m thinking about mail in ballots in California. But those states also have much better systems for mail-in balloting.”

One potential drawback of creating specific ballots for every precinct: it introduces another possibility for error. Voters might be handed the wrong ballot, an issue that already has election officials worried after last year’s problems.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.