How are votes counted and reported in Albemarle County elections? What protections are in place to prevent fraud or simple mistakes? The optimal voting experience is easy and quick, but behind the scenes, Lauren Eddy and her team work hard to keep many gears turning smoothly.
Eddy is the county’s General Registrar and Director of Elections, and she served for 15 years as Deputy Registrar before ascending to her current post in July. She helped implement recent changes in early in-person voting and no-excuse voting by mail, both mandated by new state laws during former Governor Ralph Northam’s administration. Her office manages voter registration and all aspects of local and state-wide elections. It’s an important job, and a big one.
While election events are intermittent surges in the office’s activity level, voter registration is a constant. “We have about 83,000 registered voters in the county, and they’re always moving,” said Eddy. “They’re getting married, they’re changing their address, so it’s always a constant flow of paperwork that we have to do.”
Registration and participation rates in Albemarle County are high—in 2020, 91% of eligible voters (adults 18 or over) were registered and about 80% of those went out and voted. “I think our registration rate is pretty normal across the state, [because] all of the rates increased once they instituted the motor voter laws,” said Eddy, referring to a box that county residents can easily check on auto registration and licensing forms at the Department of Motor Vehicles. “Everybody goes to the DMV, and everybody typically says yes to voter registration at the DMV, so they’re registered to vote.”
Voter rolls are required to be updated weekly to eliminate the potential for someone else to use the registration of deceased residents, per a recent law enacted under Governor Glenn Youngkin. Youngkin has made election integrity and confidence in the electoral process a key goal of his administration. Two other laws were passed, one that forbids the use of outside money to run elections, and another to allow absentee ballots to be assigned to their home precincts rather than to be reported together as a central precinct.
Preparation for a fall election begins mid-summer, and Eddy says some voters request ballots to be mailed to their homes as early as possible. “The registrar’s office must ensure that early ballot-requesters are still valid voters,” she said. To request a ballot online or by phone, voters must prove they are properly registered, which itself requires proof of identification and residency. “Oftentimes, we’ve mailed out the ballot, and then we’ll get a new application because the person has moved, and then you have to match those up. There’s an oath that the voter has to fill out that says ‘I didn’t receive that ballot because I’m no longer at that address, and if I do get it, I won’t use it.’”
In 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the state required registrars to mail an absentee application to every registered voter. “We don’t usually do that, and that [was bound to] raise suspicions,” said Eddy. “People think, something’s not right, why am I getting this when I didn’t request it? But most of the time, it’s your own party representatives who send that absentee application to you, not us.”
Running an election also requires a small army of election officials—the poll workers who populate all 32 precincts in the county on election day—and they are a dedicated bunch. “The majority of them keep coming back each year,” said Eddy. “We just had a training for chiefs and assistant chiefs. We like to say that we’re lucky in Albemarle, we actually have a waiting list for election officials. On our list right now, we probably have a little over 700 people.” About 350 will be deployed on election day, with a pool of about 50 more on standby in case anyone can’t make it.
“We have a pool of people who are willing to go anywhere we need them at four o’clock in the morning on election day,” said Eddy. “According to Virginia code, you only need three people to run a precinct, but we always have more than that, sometimes many more.” She said that in her 18 years of working with election officials, she has never seen an attempted fraud. “Sometimes there are personnel problems, like they may not have good people skills or things like that. But there’s never been a situation where they did something that would mess up an election.”
The new law requiring that absentee ballots be reported with the totals in the voter’s home district means that each precinct has its own ballots this year. “We have 32 ballot styles, so even though it’s the same thing on every ballot this year, we have to have ballots specifically for Woodbrook, Baker-Butler, etc.,” said Eddy. “Scottsville actually has two ballots, because it has a town election this year. So, if you live in the town, you’ll get the ballot for the House of Representatives race and the town council ballot.”
There are three ways to vote in Albemarle County: early in-person, absentee by mail, and on election day in person. Early in-person voting runs for 45 days before the election by state law, the second-longest voting period of any state in the U.S., where the average early voting period is 23 days. Absentee voting does not require a reason (and as such is called “no excuse”) and registered voters can apply online, by phone, or in person to receive an absentee ballot. Virginia is one of 17 states that require a “secrecy sleeve”—an extra inner envelope that protects voters’ privacy by separating their identity and signature from their ballot.
Absentee ballots can be returned by mail or dropped off in person at the county office building on 5th Street, which is where early in-person voting takes place as well. There is an outside drop box that is monitored by security cameras 24 hours a day.
Every day in the early voting period must be prepared for as scrupulously as Election Day. “I tell people we have 45 Election Days,” said Eddy with a laugh, “because every morning [during early voting] we do everything we would do to open the polls on Election Day. It’s basically mandated by the state, but the county has to pay for it.”
For both early in-person and Election Day voting, an ID is required, though not necessarily a photo ID—other forms of identification such as a current utility bill are accepted. “If you don’t have an ID, the state says you can fill out an Affirmation of Identity form, basically swearing under law that you are who you say that you are,” said Eddy. “If you refuse to sign that affirmation, then you have to do a provisional ballot, and you have up until noon on the Friday after the election to come in and show a valid ID. That’s the only way that ballot could be counted.
“On election night, when you see provisional totals reported, that’s just the number of provisional ballets that we’ve gotten in,” she continued. “So, after the board does their official canvass and has certified their results, that’s when you’ll see those provisional numbers and you’ll know which ballots were counted and which ballots were not. We find that most people who do provisional ballots, once the election is over and a winner is announced, don’t bother to come back with an ID.”
Absentee ballots that have arrived by mail are carefully recorded and processed. “The Registrar’s staff scans the outside of the ballot envelopes when they are returned in the mail,” said Eddy. “Election officials scan the ballots into the voting machines. They work in teams of two, consisting of one Republican and one Democrat.”
Albemarle county uses voting machines made by a company called Election Systems & Software—the DS200 paper ballot optical scanner. While an additional modem component could be purchased from ES&S to allow wireless transfers of vote totals between precincts and county’s election office, Virginia by law forbids wireless communications of any kind between voting machines and outside equipment during elections, so no machines have modem components.
Instead, the system summarizes the vote counts on paper. “The voting machines print out results reports [on long tapes that look like grocery store receipts] at the end of the night,” said Eddy. “All of the election information is printed on the tapes and transferred to the Statement of Results.” While actual hand-counting would avoid reliance on machines altogether, Eddy doesn’t think it would be more accurate. “In my opinion, you have more room for human error after a 16-hour day, hand-counting 2,000 ballots [in a precinct],” she said. “I think I’m more likely to make a mistake than the scanner making a mistake.”
The Department of Elections publishes unofficial results for all Virginia elections to its website on the night of the election. The results are entered by each of Virginia’s local general registrar offices into the department’s centralized results reporting system, which then publishes the updated results every 10 minutes to the website.
As claims of election fraud and conspiracy have increased in the U.S., Eddy’s office receives more requests for specific kinds of documents that are unfamiliar to the general public. “We were getting FOIA requests for very specific things, like something called a ballot record report, which we don’t even create because it requires a special software that costs $15,000 and essentially creates an image of every ballot,” she said. “People can still view our tapes from the machines—we never get rid of those—and compare them to our statement of results, if they’d like.”
Eddy says that state officials now perform random “risk-limiting audits” to certify that reported vote totals match the data from raw paper ballots. “You are randomly chosen, you never know which locality is going to have to do it,” she said, “and they have a system. They tell us, ‘We need you to pull this box from this precinct, and this box from this precinct, and count down to ballot 200 in the stack and pull it’ [to check it against the tapes and reports]. They have the system down, and it works, they’ve proven it.”
As state administrations change, so do priorities, and more upheaval may lie ahead for Virginia elections. State Delegate Sally Hudson is pushing for Charlottesville and Albemarle to adopt a ranked choice voting system, where voters mark their top three choices for a particular office in ranked order instead of just voting for a single candidate. While Hudson argues that the system would allow a fairer playing field for anyone to run for office, in practice the method has confused voters in places that have instituted it like Alaska, and the city of Richmond recently declined to implement the system.
“[The state has] already passed a bill allowing local boards to use ranked choice voting, so I’m giving a presentation to the Board of Supervisors next month to tell them what it would take for our office to implement it,” said Eddy. “But it would just be for their race—only local boards like the supervisors’ race could use ranked choice voting—and every other thing on the ballot would be a regular voting, so it could get confusing.”
Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares announced the formation of a new Election Integrity Unit which will provide legal advice to the state Department of Elections, investigate and prosecute violations of election law, and work with law enforcement to ensure legality and purity in elections. The new unit includes more than 20 attorneys, investigators and paralegals from the Attorney General’s office, who will provide advice, support, and resources to local districts as questions or problems arise. Miyares said his goal with the new unit is to ensure that it is “easy to vote, hard to cheat.”