Virginia has a locally administered, state-supervised electoral system with four key entities
Source: Joint Legislative and Advisory Committee (JLARC), Operations and Performance of Virginia's Department of Elections (Figure 1-1)
In Virginia, local registrars and Electoral Boards administer elections in 133 jurisdictions. They organize the ballot, recruit officers of election (election officials), obtain suitable polling places, distribute ballots, and compile results. The Virginia Department of Elections (ELECT) issues guidance and manages the Virginia Election and Registration Information System (VERIS), which publicizes results on a website. The State Board of Elections certifies official results, except for recounts which are processed by Circuit Court judges.
On election day, polls are open between 6:00am-7:00pm. If there are problems with the voting machines or ballots have been misprinted, a precinct may open late or even close for a portion of the day. Voters must wait or come back later in order to cast their ballot.
Voters who go to the polls on election day will show identification, be recorded in the poll book (or turned away if not registered), and given a paper ballot. Voters then go to a booth where they mark their preferences on the paper ballot. The last stage in voting is to walk over to a scanner and run the ballot through it. When recorded by the scanner, a flag appears on screen. The paper stays in the scanner, and a poll worker gives the voter a sticker to advertise their participation in the process. Everyone standing in line at 7:00pm is allowed to vote, but those voters cast provisional ballots.
After all voting is completed, election officials at each precinct tabulate the votes. The electronic scanners were tested before polls open at 6:00am, and the Zero Tape documented that there were no pre-recorded votes. At the end of voting, the Results Tape from each machine reveals the totals that reflect preferences of the voters using each machine. At the precincts, election officials complete a Statement of Results worksheet with vote totals and submit it to the Electoral Board at election headquarters.
The Electoral Board meets in private to determine the qualifications of those who cast provisional votes, so those get counted on election night along with absentee ballots. The Electoral Board then holds a public meeting known as the "canvass." In the canvass, election officials consolidate results from the individual precincts. Candidates may have observers with an unobstructed view of the officials tabulating the votes.
The procedures for elections are defined in the Code of Virginia and guidance from the Virginia Board of Elections. There are provisions for different circumstances, designed to minimize the risk of voter fraud while facilitating a person's right to vote. For example, if a person is at least 65 years old or disabled but can get to their precinct's voting place, two election officials will carry a paper ballot out to a car.1
Virginia elections are decided by the plurality of voters; the candidate receiving the most votes is declared the winner, even if their total is less than a 50% majority.
In some states, candidates must receive over 50% or the total vote (a "majority") to win. If those states, if there are three or more candidates and no one receives a majority, a runoff election is required to decide the winner. Virginia only holds runoff elections when there is a tie vote for a US House of Representatives or General Assembly seat, US Senate, or local office. The law requiring runoff elections was passed in 2020, after a tie vote for a House of Delegates seat was broken by pulling the winner's name from a bowl.
In 2020, the General Assembly authorized Arlington County to experiment with ranked choice voting for County Board races. In that process, voters rank their preferences on the ballot. If no one receives 50% of the vote, then votes for the lowest-ranked candidate are eliminated and the second-ranked preference on those ballots is counted.
If there were only three candidates, then one of the remaining two will get over 50%. The winner might have received fewer "first place" votes, but scored a majority of the "second place" votes for the eliminated candidate. If there were more than three candidates on the ballot and redistribution of votes does not give anyone 50%, then the lowest-ranked remaining candidate is eliminated and his/her second-place votes are redistributed.
Ranked choice voting guarantees that the ultimate winner will have received a majority of votes. It provides an instant-runoff, without the delays and costs to hold a second election to pick a winner.
Ranked choice voting also allows voters to initially choose a third-party candidate, with less concern that they are wasting their vote. If, for example, 10% of voters prefer a third-party candidate while the Republicans and Democrats split the remainder, then the first reports after the election will show a 45-45-10% split. Under a ranked choice process, the ballots for the third party candidate will be recalculated, counting the second-ranked preference. If 80% of those ballots listed the Republican candidate as the second preference and 20% preferred the Democratic candidate, then the final vote would have 53% for the Republican and 47% for the Democrat.
The Arlington Democratic Party started using the process to nominate candidates for County Board and School Board elections in 2020. None of the nominees for each race that year won 50% of the vote on the first round. In a plurality process, had come in second in the initial vote, but no one had won a majority exceeding 50%. When the second-ranked
Arlington had to upgrade its voting software in order to calculate votes for more than three candidates. The county had to prepare for the possibility that four or more candidates would appear on the ballot, so it did not use ranked choice voting in 2020. Other legislation approved in 2021 allowed jurisdictions to adopt ranked choice voting for county supervisor and city council races for 10 years, starting in 2021.2
Modern voting procedures have a long, and not always honorable, history. Policies and standard operating procedures have been developed over time to address voter fraud (especially for absentee voting) and voter intimidation.
campaigning is restricted at polling places, including limits on loudspeakers
Source: Virginia Department of Elections, Guidelines for Campaigners and Authorized Representatives
In 1883, a supposed "riot" in Danville was publicized by Democrats as a sign that African-Americans were demanding social and economic equality, beyond the right to vote. The Democrats won control of the General Assembly in that election. After losing the race for governor in 1885, the Readjuster Party dissolved.3
Democrats consolidated control of the state. After passing the Anderson-McCormick Act in 1884, the General Assembly changed the voting procedures and appointed three-member electoral boards for each local jurisdiction. Those election officials facilitated election tampering and voter suppression so Democratic candidates gained an unfair advantage.4
Virginia became part of the Solid South where the capacity of Republicans to be elected was low. White voters remembered that Republicans controlled the Federal government during the Civil War and Reconstruction, and were reportedly willing to vote even for a yellow dog so long as it was a Democrat.
Voting by blacks was constrained through official procedures and unofficial intimidation, minimizing their ability to participate in the political process. However, John Mercer Langston ran as a Republican and managed to win election to the US Congress in 1888. The election of Virginia's first black US representative was disputed in the US Congress, and the seat was left empty for over a year.
Mercer served only the last seven months of his two-year term, and it was not until 1993 that Virginia elected its second African-American (Rep. Bobby Scott) to Congress. After 1891, no people of color served in the General Assembly until after passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In 1968, Dr. William Ferguson Reid was elected from Richmond to serve in the House of Delegates.
The first black to be elected to the State Senate in modern times was L. Douglas Wilder, in 1970. He became the first person of color to be elected to statewide office as Lieutenant Governor in 1985, and then was elected Governor in 1989. In the 1985 election, Mary Sue Terry became the first and only woman to be elected to a statewide office when she won the race for Attorney General.5
After the 1902 state constitution disfranchised most African-American voters in Virginia, only the "Fighting Ninth" District for the US House of Representatives in southwestern Virginia remained competitive for Republicans. There were few black voters in that corner of Virginia, but throughout the 1800's the white residents had resented how the General Assembly and governor directed state revenues to benefit primarily the area east of the Blue Ridge. Southwestern Virginia and eastern Tennessee residents had little enthusiasm for secession and fighting for slavery during the Civil War, and because of the independent voters some Republicans continued to win elections there.
To enhance prospects in Virginia, Rep. C. Bascom Slemp from the 9th District led the "lily white" movement in Virginia's Republican Party. It excluded African-Americans from voting in the statewide convention in 1920, and in 1921 the Republican Party even banned African-Americans from the visitor's gallery. In response to the shunning by Republicans, a convention of 600 black delegates in 1921 nominated an independent ticket for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, superintendent of public instruction, treasurer, secretary of the commonwealth, State Corporation Council commissioner, and commissioner of agriculture. All the candidates were black.6
The Democratic Party maintained full control of state government until 1969. Key contests occurred in the Democratic primaries rather than in the general elections, and winning the Democratic Party primary ensured election. Between the 1920's-1960, Harry Byrd served first as governor and then as US Senator, and his Democratic Party "organization" controlled the General Assembly.
In 1946, the General Assembly created a State Board of Elections to oversee the work performed by city and county registrars and to ensure uniform application of the state's election laws and procedures. The new agency assumed responsibilities from the Secretary of the Commonwealth and the Board of State Canvassers. In 2014, the Department of Elections was created to manage the administrative work, including maintenance of a statewide automated voter registration system.
The State Board of Elections retained its regulatory responsibilities, and makes final decisions regarding election disputes. The Governor appoints the five-member board, subject to State Senate confirmation. Three members must represent the party that won the most recent race for Governor and two members represent the other party. Terms of appointees are staggered; all five do not expire at the start of a new Governor's term. A new Governor's appointees to the State Board of Elections do not alter the partisan balance until two years after an election, but at the start of his/her term the Governor can appoint a new Commissioner to lead the Virginia Department of Elections.
In theory, the Department of Elections is a professional, non-partisan agency. It maintains the statewide registration system (Virginia Election and Registration Information System or VERIS) for 5.5 million voters, delivers electronic absentee ballots to eligible military and overseas voters, helps local election officials follow established procedures and ensures election integrity. By its vary nature, however, the State Board of Elections is a partisan oversight body. Politics may tilt the actions of the executive agency, including decisions regarding the eligibility of candidates who must file state-required forms to qualify for the ballot.
A 2018 report by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) concluded that the voter rolls were mostly accurate, but under Governor Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia Department of Elections:7
the State Board of Elections is the regulatory body, while the Department of Elections administers elections
Source: Virginia Department of Elections, Elections' Organizational Chart
In the middle of the 20th Century, Virginia's electorate appeared schizophrenic to outsiders. As the national Republican Party became more conservative and the national Democratic Party became more liberal, Virginia voted for Republican presidential candidates in Federal elections but for Democrats in state/local elections.
Federal legislation and court rulings in the 1960's expanded the electorate, allowing minorities an opportunity to vote and win elections. New legislative districts were drawn in 1965 to comply with "one person-one vote" decisions by state and Federal courts.
Rep. Howard W. Smith had been elected nine times in the 8th Congressional District and had risen to become chair of the House Rules Committee, but in 1966 the more-liberal George W. Rawlings defeated Rep. Smith in the Democratic primary. Many conservative Democrats did not support Rawlings in the general election, and the Republican candidate (William Scott) defeated Rawlings. That led to more Republican victories in Northern Virginia for the next three decades.
In 1969, Republican Linwood Holton won the governor's office as the more-liberal candidate in the race. In 1973, the Virginia parties finally aligned with their national counterparts. The state Democratic Party shifted to the left, and Virginia Republicans became the conservative alternative.
After 2000, demographic changes helped make Northern Virginia a stronghold for liberal Democrats. Former Rep. Tom Davis, the last Republican elected to the US House of Representatives in Northern Virginia, emphasized that the shift occurred because his political party had advocated for social issues that resonated in rural areas (such as gun rights) but not addressed concerns of suburban voters. Republicans lost support as those suburban voters, particularly women, became a greater percentage of the electorate.
Del. Tim Hugo was the last Republican from Fairfax County and one of the last in all of Northern Virginia serving in the House of Delegates, after a "blue wave" of Democratic victories in 2017. During Hugo's unsuccessful 2019 campaign to retain the 40th District seat, he minimized his status as a Republican and referred to himself as a "Delegate Pothole" focused on local issues and constituent services. His opponent was clear in defining himself as a Democrat, and that helped him flip the seat in 2019.
Across the state, Democrats increased their majorities in suburban districts as the electorate migrated away from the Republican Party's conservative agenda on social issues. Tom Davis commented before the election:8
in 2019, the Republican candidate for the 40th District minimized his association with the Republican Party - while his Democratic opponent did the opposite
Source: Tim Hugo - Delegate and Dan Helmer - Democrat for Delegate
Hugo did lose the race, as did the Republican candidate in the 13th State Senate district. After 2019, there was only one Republican left in the General Assembly representing a district in Northern Virginia north of the Occoquan River. The day after Rep. Dave LaRock was re-elected to the House of Delegates from the 33rd District, he commented:9
after the 2019 election, the only Republican in the General Assembly from north of the Occoquan River represented the 33rd District"
Source: Virginia General Assembly, 33rd House District
Today in Northern Virginia and several cities, victory in the Democratic primary became tantamount to election. In 2003, the race for the District 49 seat in the Virginia House of Delegates attracted so little interest that Adam Ebbin won the primary with just 771 votes, then ran unopposed in the general election to become the first openly gay member of the General Assembly.
Political analyst and scholar Larry Sabato noted:10
in the 2003 primary, the candidate for the District 49 seat in the House of Delegates won with just 771 votes
Source: Virginia State Board of Elections, 2003 House of Delegates Democratic Primary - District 49
A single voter's decision occasionally determines who wins a race. In 1991, "Landslide Jim" Scott won the 53rd District seat in the House of Delegates by one vote. That same year, Peter T. Way won the race in the 58th District by the same narrow margin. Races can also end in a tie, after which the winner is chosen "by lot" rather than in a runoff election.11
suffragists who protested at the White House were jailed and force-fed at the Occoquan Workhouse in Lorton, before women gained the right to vote in 1920 after ratification of the 19th Amendment
Source: Architect of the Capitol, Women's Suffrage Parade, 1917
Assigning residents to the correct local, state, and Federal voting districts is the responsibility of local registrars in each county/city. In 2017, an election in Newport News for the 94th District in the House of Delegates ended in a tie vote. The winner was decided by drawing names from a bowl.
Afterwards, it became clear that some voters had been assigned to the wrong precinct. The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission reported in 2018 that mis-assignment of voters was not unique to Newport News, in part because local registrars did not use address and boundary data consistently:12
local registrars assign voters to precincts, but state boundaries and address data may be inconsistent with local decisions
Source: Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, Operations and Performance of Virginia's Department of Elections (Figure 2-13)
In 2022, a family living on Nethers Road, at the border of Rappahannock and Madison counties, went to vote in Sperryville as they had done for the last two decades. They were surprised to discover their names were not in the Madison County poll book, and they should be voting in the Etlan precinct of Rappahannock County. The family had been paying real estate taxes to Madison County, but paying personal property taxes and sending children to school in Rappahannock County.
After the 2021 redistricting, the Virginia Department of Elections used its Geographic Information System (GIS) technology and identified three families that had been voting incorrectly in Madison County. They were all assigned to Rappahannock County, and the family which had appeared in Sperryville finally voted successfully in Rappahannock County.
It was later determined that they had not received notification in August of their new congressional district and voting location, because their voter registration data had used their Post Office Box in Sperryville for notifications rather than the E-911 address in Rappahannock County.13
Nethers Road snakes along the border of Rappahannock and Madison counties
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Old Rag Mountain VA 1:24,000 topographic quadrangle (2022)
In Bedford County, one house on the Roanoke County/Bedford County boundary was placed in the Sixth Congressional District. The Census tract included the house in Roanoke County, but local officials had agreed that it should be considered to be within Bedford County and taxed by that jurisdiction.
The 2021 redistricting by the Supreme Court of Virginia used the Federal treatment and resulted in the house being the only one in the Sixth Congressional District and in Bedford County. Starting in the 2022 election cycle, Bedford County had to open a precinct for the two voters living in the one house. The unique status of that house also exposed how the two individuals living there voted, since it was possible to correlated votes reported by jurisdiction and the ownership for that house.
The Census Bureau later refined the boundaries of the census tract and placed the house back in Bedford County, but by then the Supreme Court of Virginia had formalized adoption of the 2021 redistricting map. The General Assembly had no authority to adjust the boundary of the Sixth Congressional District until the 2023 redistricting process in 2031. The Supreme Court of Virginia reacts only to lawsuits and does not revise legal decisions on its own initiative. The only way for the two residents in that house to maintain the secrecy of their votes was to file a lawsuit and ask the Supreme Court of Virginia to amend its redistricting decision made at the end of 2021.14
one house in Bedford County was placed in the Sixth Congressional District, requiring a split precinct to record votes for just that house
Source: Bedford County, Congressional Boundary
A similar problem in Louisa County could be fixed by local and state officials. The county adopted new precinct boundaries after the 2021 redistricting. In error, a precinct based on the boundaries of the 56th House of Delegates District included one house that was actually in the 59th District. Local supervisors requested that the Virginia State Board of Elections adjust precinct boundaries so the recorded vote by precinct would not expose the choice made by voter in that one house.15
Simply getting people to choose to vote is a challenge for both major political parties. Elections are held every year in Virginia, with state offices on the ballot in odd-numbered years and Federal offices in even-numbered years. The presidential election every four years generates the greatest interest and the highest number of voters. The next year, in an "off year" election, Virginia elects a governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general in a statewide election.
17% of voters registered in 2016 never chose to vote in an election before November 3, 2020
Source: Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP), A Profile of Virginia's Registered Voters
Voter participation two years later, in an "off-off year," typically has the lowest participation. Political parties always emphasize Get Out The Vote campaigns, but they have the greatest impact in off-off year elections, when there are no Federal or statewide elections. In 2015, an off-off year with races for just the House of Delegates and State Senate seats (plus some local offices), only 29% of the registered voters went to the polls.
voter turnout changes dramatically between off-off year elections and the next year when presidents are elected (in bold print)
Source: Virginia Department of Elections, Registration/Turnout Reports
In 2019, as formal impeachment proceedings against President Trump were getting started, over 40% of the voters cast a ballot. That was a record turnout for an off-off year election in Virginia. In the general 2019 election, voters elected enough Democrats to replace Republicans that the majority switched in both the State Senate and the House of Delegates. Democrats gained control of the General Assembly for the first time since 1995.
In the presidential election year 2016, 72% of registered voters chose to participate in the election through absentee or in-person voting.16
2019 had record-high voter participation in an off-off year election
Source: Virginia Public Access Project, Record Turnout for Off-Off Year
The 2021 General Assembly forced all municipal elections to be held in November, starting in 2022. Previously, nearly 100 cities and towns with 900,000 residents held elections in May/June for local offices, including school boards. Choosing to hold elections separate from state/Federal races enabled candidates to get media attention, and for voters to hear about local issues. The Democratic-controlled General Assembly changed the date, assuming that turnout would be higher in the November elections and that more Democrats would vote then. Consolidating with November elections would also save some of the costs for local Electoral Boards, though state-run primaries might still be scheduled for June.
In response, several local jurisdictions considered moving their election dates to odd-numbered years. Though the General Assembly races would still be on the ballot in November, there would be less "noise" from campaigns for the US Congress and for President. The Chesapeake City Council decided in a 5-4 vote to stick with its schedule, but the Fredericksburg City Council moved its elections to odd-numbered years starting in 2022.17
In 1976, there were 2,123,849 registered voters in Virginia. In 2022, 6,132,331 people were registered, a 189% increase. Population within that same time period increased only 70%.
Between 1976-2022, the percentage of registered voters actually casting a ballot (voter "turnout") in November elections ranged from 29% in 2011 to 84% in 1992.
turnout spikes in Federal elections during even-numbered years, especially for presidential elections
Source: Virginia Department of Elections, Registration/Turnout Reports
Part of the increase in the percentage of registered voters can be attributed to the 1996 National Voter Registration Act, making it possible to register to vote when dealing with the Department of Motor Vehicles. In 1996, Virginia also stopped automatically purging registered voters if they had not cast a ballot in the last four years.
Governor McDonnell, elected in 2023, also started restoring the right to vote after convicted felons completed their prison terms. His decision, which was expanded upon by the next two governors, enabled a new class of voter to register.18
In addition, the General Assembly approved same-day registration beginning with the 2022 General Election. The old deadline had required voters to register to vote in the correct precinct 21 days before an election.
Voters can now appear at their precinct on Election Day, show identification to prove where they live, then register and vote a special green provisional ballot. The provisional ballot is required because the name of the unregistered voter will not have been listed in the electronic pollbook at the precinct. The five jurisdictions with the highest percentage of provisional ballots in 2023, ranging from 7.3% to 0.9%, were all university communities - Williamsburg, Charlottsville, Montgomery County, Harrisonburg, and Fredericksburg.
Poll workers will place the provisional ballot in a separate ballot box and secure it until the box with provisional votes is opened the next day. After review of the ballot by the local electoral board during the post-election canvass, the three-member Electoral Board will count the vote unless there is evidence to indicate the registration is not valid.19
since 2022 voters can register on Election Day and cast a provisional ballot
Source: Virginia Department of Elections, Introduction to Provisional Ballots
On election night, or soon thereafter, the Virginia Department of Elections announces unofficial voting results. Official results are not provided until after Electoral Boards complete the canvass. That includes assuring results from precincts are correct, and counting both late-arriving mail-in ballots and provisional ballots. Some Electoral Boards may also wait to count those ballots placed in a drop box on Election Day by voters who chose not to go inside to vote in person, perhaps to avoid the wait in line.
Main-in ballots are valid if they are postmarked on or before the day of election, and arrive by noon on the third day following the election. That is typically noon on Friday after the election on Tuesday, but in some years is Monday noon because Veterans Day holiday occurred before the deadline.
The provisional ballots in green envelopes come from people who registered on Election Day, requested an absentee ballot but did not bring it to the polls to ensure there would be no double-voting, or failed to provide an acceptable form of ID.
mail-in and provisional ballots were 2% of the statewide total in 2022, and changed two unofficial election results announced after the polls closed on Tuesday
Source: Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP), How the Post-Election Tally Works
Candidates thought to be winners of close elections on Tuesday night must wait until the canvass is completed and votes are certified before being confident they will be serving in office.
In 2022, results of elections for Fairfax City Council and mayor of the Town of Elkton flipped between Election Night and certification of the vote. In 2023, preliminary results announced on election night for a Montgomery County Board of Supervisors seat had one candidate in the lead by 43 votes. The final count, including 900 provisional ballots, switched the results. A different candidate ended up winning by 1,347-1,316, a 31-vote margin.
The canvass for the 2023 Blacksburg town council race revealed there were 662 uncounted votes, requiring a complete redo of the counting eight days after the election. The initial count had somehow missed many same-day registration provisional ballots, presumably cast by students attending Virginia Tech who had not registered prior to election day.
The canvass determined the problem and enbled the votes to be counted:20
Political parties can provide official observers to watch the canvass of all ballots. If observers disagree with judgement calls made by election officials, especially on disqualifying a provisional ballot, the political parties can ask the Circuit Court to intervene and overrule the decision.
During a recount for the 94th District of the House of Delegates in 2017, a three-judge panel chose to count a ballot that election officials had disqualified. The decision of the judges ended up changing who won the race, and that shift changed which political party controlled the House of Delegates for two years.21
Virginia voters mark a paper ballot which is scanned to tabulate totals, then retained in case a recount is required
Source: Arlington County, IMG_0012
computerization, especially Geographic Information System (GIS) technology, has provided new techniques for Get Out The Vote (GOTO) and voter suppression campaigns
Source: Virginia State Board of Elections, Evolution of Virginia Elections
candidate signs lined the road to an early voting location in Washington County (September 30, 2023)