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New Absentee Rules, COVID To Delay Vote Counts

statement of voter intent
Voters who didn't receive requested absentee ballots can still fill out a form declaring such in order to cast a vote. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

The coronavirus has forced widespread changes to how Virginians vote this year. Early voting has gone on for longer and mail-in absentee ballots are more popular than ever.

Like in many states, Virginia election officials say those changes mean election night results will be incomplete. Here’s why - and what dates you need to know.

Absentee Mail-in Deadline Extended

At the time of publication, over 2.3 million Virginians have voted. That’s over half of all Virginia voters in 2016. Nearly 850,000 of those have voted by mail-in absentee ballot, according to VPAP.

For the first time in the commonwealth, if a mail-in ballot is postmarked by election day and arrives at a registrar’s office by Friday, Nov. 6 at noon, it can still be counted.

With an unknown number of votes arriving in the days after polls close, some registrars could be counting into the weekend.

The migration to mail-in voting is a product of the pandemic - but this particular change is because of a law that passed the General Assembly in February, and took effect this summer.

Limited Election Night Results

That extended deadline also means that by election night, no results will be complete. Official results are never available on election night and usually take a couple of weeks to produce - but Virginians are used to having full unofficial accounts pretty quickly. That’s just not possible with ballots coming in until Friday this year.

Local election officials have been instructed to count as many absentee ballots as they can by 11 p.m. on election night, and then send their incomplete count to the Department of Elections to be reported.

That means the numbers we see Wednesday morning are guaranteed to be incomplete counts.

The Virginia Public Access Project simulated the contest between Rep. Brat and then-challenger Spanberger on election night in 2018, if the votes came in the way they're likely to this year. (Screenshot: VPAP)

Staggered Reporting

The counting starts again after election day, but new results won’t be reported until Friday at noon, when mail-in ballots are due.

With some registrars expecting an influx of ballots at that time, these new figures will likely not be final either. The deadline for counting all votes - for an unofficial count - doesn’t come until a week after Election Day, Nov. 10.

At that point, results are sent to the Department of Elections, who spend another week verifying them.

When Will We Know Who Won?

If only it were that simple.

Election officials are not in the habit of saying who won until results are certified. News organizations certainly are, though - and the changes to voting this year will impact how they call races.

Some races are likely to be called early, even without all the data. Deciding a winner in the presidential election will likely be down to the speed of other states.

Close local races could take some time, though. It’s not out of the ordinary for contests like these to be held up by recounts and other delays, and it’s possible that mail-in ballots could extend the waiting period further.

There are a couple of guarantees, though. There’s the Nov. 10 unofficial count deadline, and the Board of Elections is required by state law to certify the results by Nov. 16.

So although it’s going to be a different election night than Virginia is used to, residents will know who won - eventually.

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.
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