Select your state to learn more about how elections are run. PLEASE NOTE: We currently only have information regarding Virginia elections. Please check back as we add more states in the coming months!
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Who is in charge of elections at the state level in Virginia?
In Virginia, the Department of Elections administers and oversees the election process. The Department is a nonpolitical organization that is designed to promote and support fair, secure and open elections in Virginia. The Department includes the State Board of Elections which is responsible for overseeing, coordinating, and governing the work of local election officials and election registrars under Virginia’s statute. In addition to overseeing the work of local election officers and registrars, the State Board oversees all aspects of voter registration, provides absentee ballots, and assists eligible military and oversee voters. The State Board of Elections is staffed by five board members, appointed by the Governor, and serving four year terms.
What is the process for verifying voter eligibility when a person registers to vote?
At the time of registration, a new voter is required to provide their valid Virginia ID or license number, their date of birth, residence address, and citizenship status as part of their application, among other requirements. The Department of Elections reviews these voter applications and provides “each general registrar voter confirmation documents for newly registered voters . . .” under Va Code § 24.2-404(A)(3).
Additionally, the general registrars of each election precinct are required to enter the names of all registered voters in their jurisdiction into Virginia’s voter registration database. They must also update that database with any changes to a registered voter under VA Code § 24.2-404(A)(4). This database is then used to confirm voters are validly registered to vote and helps the List Maintenance Team keep Virginia’s voting rolls accurate .
How often are voting rolls reviewed? By who?
Under Va Code § 24.2-404(F) the Department of Elections must provide a yearly report to the VA government by October 1 detailing all the audits and activities the department has done to accurately maintain Virginia’s voting roll. The Department employs a List Maintenance Team. The Team checks the voter registration rolls monthly, and makes the registration statistics publicly available. Every month, the Team checks the voting rolls against recent deaths, convictions, people who have been deemed incapacitated, and people who have moved out of the state. These people are then removed from the voting rolls and deemed ineligible to vote.
What criteria are there for selecting voting machines?
There is an extensive list of factors that must be met before an electronic device can be used in the ballot casting and/or counting process under § 24.2-629(B) of the Virginia Code. Under this code, prior to use, a machine must:
- Provide instructions to voters on how to mark and select their choice(s) on their ballot and cast their vote.
- Be capable of providing ballots that cover all offices and all questions submitted for any election.
- Be usable for all primary elections, but able to be programmed to prevent voters from casting ballots in primaries that are not registered for.
- Require votes for presidential and vice-presidential electors to be cast for the electors of one party. The ballot must contain the words “Electors for” preceded by the name of the party or other authorized designation and followed by the names of the candidates for the offices of President and Vice President. Ex. “Republican Electors for [CANDIDATES NAMES]” or “Democratic Electors for [CANDIDATES NAMES].
- Enable the voter to cast votes for as many persons for an office as lawfully permitted, but no more. It will prevent the voter from casting a vote for the same person more than once for the same office. Ballot scanner machines are not required to prevent a voter from voting for a greater number of candidates than he is lawfully entitled to.
- Enable the voter to cast a vote on any question on which he is lawfully permitted to vote, but no other.
- Provide the voter with an opportunity to correct any error before a ballot is cast.
- Correctly and accurately record and count all votes cast.
- It must have a “protective counter,” where any operation of the machine before or after the election will be detected.
- It must have a counter which shows how many persons have voted at all times during an election.
- Ensure that voting is done in absolute secrecy. Ballot scanner machines must have a method to conceal the voted ballot.
- It shall be programmable to allow ballots to be separated when necessary.
- It must retain each printed ballot cast.
- Ballot scanner machines shall report, if possible, the number of ballots on which a voter undervoted or overvoted.
How do we select manufactures/machines?
In Virginia, voting machine manufacturers, also called vendors, must submit an application to the State Board of Elections (BOE) to have their machines considered for use during an election. These potential voting machines must meet the standards laid out in the application and detailed in Virginia Code § 24.2-629 and in “What criteria are there for selecting voting machines?” on this site. The vendor must also provide a current statement of their financial status and inform the BOE if the vendor is not the direct manufacturer of the machine. The BOE also requires vendors provide documentation of best practices and security recommendations for the machine.
After the application process, selected vendors will have their machines go through rigorous testing and evaluation. Before a voting machine can be used in any election in Virginia, the machine’s security and functionality must be evaluated by BOE. If the machine passes this test, the BOE appoints an independent consultant to conduct a final review to determine if the voting machine meets security and functionality standards. See § 24.2-629. After passing these two rounds of evaluation the machine is then field tested in an actual or simulated election to determine its efficacy and security in practice.
As a final step, the State Board will notify both political parties and allow representatives to inspect the machines themselves.
How are voting machines secured prior to Election Day?
After inspection by officials, a voting machine is sealed with a numbered seal or locked with a key. If political parties have opted to have representatives present for a final inspection, the sealing or locking will occur in the party’s representative’s presence. The party’s representatives will certify the number on the seal and the number registered on the protective counter for each machine. If no party or candidate representative is present, the machine custodian will seal the device as prescribed in the presence of either a member or designee of the electoral board or general registrar. See § 24.2-633.
How are voting machines secured during Elections?
During the election the exterior of the voting equipment must be in plain view of poll workers at all times. However, the machine must be far enough away to preserve the secrecy of the voter’s ballot. One poll worker must inspect the face of the voting machine after each voter has cast their vote to verify that the ballots are in their proper places and the machine has not been damaged. During the voting process, no one shall unlock the door covering the counter compartment of any voting machine. Finally, when voting is not taking place, no person is allowed in the polling place except the voting equipment custodian, vendor, or contractor technicians. See § 24.2-638.
What are the requirements for voting machine security after an election?
Following an election, the equipment keys or data storage devices containing counts and other relevant information will be removed and enclosed in an envelope, and the voting machines will be locked. Each envelope will have an endorsed certificate containing the following information:
- The election precinct.
- The number of each voting machine.
- The number on the seal.
- The number of the protective counter.
A poll worker promptly delivers the sealed envelope to the circuit court clerk in the jurisdiction where the election occurred. When the required time has expired, the circuit clerk court returns all voting equipment keys and data storage devices to the general registrar. See § 24.2-659.
What safeguards are in place to ensure that machine counts are accurate?
All voting machines that are approved for use in the Commonwealth must be reviewed by independent electronic or engineering consultants to confirm that each voting machine is capable of storing and retaining vote counts during and after voting in the event of a power outage at a polling location. Va. Code § 24.2-629(D).
To ensure the accuracy of machine counts on Election Day, the officer of elections for each jurisdiction must examine all voting machines under their supervision to ensure that the count on each machine reads “zero” prior to the opening of polls. During the entire voting process, voting machines and counting devices must remain in plain view so officers may identify any tampering. However, at no point can an election officer be so close to a voting machine that they are able to see how a voter voted. Election Officers are also required to verify that the ballots on the face of the machine are in their proper places and that the machine has not been damaged. See Va. § 24.2-638.
Additionally, there are many laws in place with the intention of maintaining the accuracy of voting machine counts. For instance, there is a rule prohibiting wireless communications between or among voting machines while polls are open. Essentially, voting machines are disconnected from any external inputs during voting, to protect the count on each voting machine from external interference. See Va. § 24.2-625.2. Furthermore, each voting machine that is approved for use in the Commonwealth must be able to retain each ballot that is cast on the machine for audit and recount purposes. See Va. § 24.2-629.
Is manufacturer/machine selection open to the public?
Generally, yes. Once the State Board of Elections has approved a voting machine for use each Local Electoral Board can make an individual choice about which devices to use in an election. All meetings of Local Electoral Boards, including manufacturer and machine selection, are open to the public, barring a FOIA exemption. These meetings provide citizens with an opportunity to observe and voice considerations on what voting equipment will be used in their local elections. See 2.3.1 Department of Elections Handbook.
Voting & Ballots
Can voters cast a ballot in person prior to election day (early in-person voting)?
Yes. Starting 45 days prior to the election day, voters may cast their vote in person at their local registrar’s office or other areas designated by their county or city. Early in person voting ends the Saturday before the election. (See, § 24.2-701.1).
Who can obtain an absentee ballot?
Any registered voter can request a mail in ballot, otherwise known as an absentee ballot, to vote in any election. Virginia does not require a voter to have a specific reason to vote absentee or use a mail-in ballot. (See, § 24.2-700).
How are absentee ballots returned?
Voters can return absentee ballots by mailing it to their local registrar’s office, returning their ballot in person at the registrar office, or dropping it off in designated drop-off locations in their county or city. See § 24.2-707. Voters can track their ballot using ballot scout.
What safeguards are in place to ensure that fraudulent absentee ballots are not counted?
All absentee, mail in, ballots must be accompanied by both the signature of the voter and a witness signature. If a ballot is missing a witness signature the voter will be contacted by their local voter registration office within three days of receiving the ballot and the voter will be asked to correct this issue. The ballot must be corrected by noon on the third day after the election. See § 24.2-709.1.
What safeguards are in place to ensure that only absentee ballots submitted by the deadline are counted?
There are two methods to ensure that absentee ballots are submitted by the deadline: the use of “drop-boxes” and postmarks. The Department of Elections provides “drop-boxes” for absentee ballots from the time early voting starts through Election Day. Ballots dropped off in these locations are collected at least once a day by election officials. See Va § 24.2-707.1. Alternatively, ballots can be mailed in. Mailed-in ballots are meant to be postmarked at the post office on the day they are received. Ballots that are not either dropped in in a designated drop box by Election Day or mailed in and postmarked by Election Day are not eligible to be counted. See Va § 24.2-709.
How do election officials determine whether absentee ballots have been returned by the deadline?
Absentee ballots that are returned by mail generally will have a postmark indicating when they are mailed. Ballots which are postmarked on Election Day and received by the voter’s local registrar’s office by noon the week after an election will be counted. If a ballot does not have a postmark and is received after Election Day, it will be discounted. The registrar’s office will examine the ballot envelope to determine that it was mailed by the deadline.
In lieu of mailing in their ballot, voters may also drop-off their ballots in person at designated locations before an election or on Election Day. The ballots deposited in drop boxes prior to an election are collected by two election officers daily, thus ensuring they are returned on time. On election day each polling location must be equipped with a ballot “drop box”where voters may return their absentee ballots in person on election day, these drop-boxes are open until the end of voting on Election Day.
How are poll workers selected? Are they paid?
In Virginia poll workers are referred to as an “Officer of Election.” The Election Board selects election officers from a poll of applicants and party nominations. Any registered voter can apply to be an officer. Additionally, each political party files a list of nominations for the officer position and, when possible, the majority of election officers are taken from these lists. Additionally, the Election Board can appoint voters who do not represent either political party as needed.
Election officers are paid $200 for working on Election Day.
Who is permitted to be present at polls on election day besides voters and election officials?
In addition to voters and election administrators a number of people may be at a polling location on Election Day, subject to certain limitations. Poll workers, also called election officers, are paid volunteers who assist with the successful administration of the election. Election observers, either neutral observers or those representing a political party or independent candidate, are permitted in the polling location. However, they cannot interfere with voters or the election process and must get permission from election officials at the polling location to observe the voting process. Members of the media are permitted in the polling location, but cannot conduct interviews inside the polling location. Additionally, high school students who have not reached voting age can act as election day pages to observe and assist the electoral process.
Who/what body certifies election results at the state level?
The State Board of Elections certifies election results for all state level elected officials, including races for federal office, and transmits this certification to the appropriate representatives in the legislature. Additionally, the State Board of Elections certifies any election shared by more than one county and/or city, and those elected to soil and water conservation districts.
What is the partisan affiliation of people who certify vote totals at the state and local level?
The State Board of Elections is a nonpolitical entity that is responsible for certifying elections in the Commonwealth. See § 24.2-680. Each locality in Virginia also has its own local election board, which is responsible for certifying elections within their jurisdiction. See § 24.2-671. Each local board has three court appointed members. Two of the members must come from the political party that cast the most votes in the most recent gubernatorial race while the last one must come from the political party that cast the second most votes. See § 24.2-102.
The State Board of Elections is comprised of five members appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the General Assembly. Three board members must be of the same political party that received the highest number of votes in the preceding Governor’s Election. Since the political party receiving the second highest number of votes in the preceding election for Governor must be represented on the Board, at least 1 seat must be filled by a member of that party.
Under what circumstances can a recount be requested? By who?
In Virginia, a recount can be requested to determine the winner of an elected office and for ballot questions. In both instances, a recount can only be requested if the margin of victory is within a certain percentage point and must wait until after the election is certified and must file their petition for a recount with the appropriate court.
For candidates, a recount can only be requested by the apparent losing candidate of an election. If the apparent winning candidate was not a write-in candidate, the losing candidate may only request a recount if the margin of victory for the winning candidate was less than 1%. If the winning candidate was a write-in candidate, then a losing candidate can request a recount if the margin of victory is less than 5% of the total votes cast. Again, the apparent losing candidate must wait until after an election is certified to request a recount.
For ballot questions, a recount can be requested if fifty or more voters who file a petition with the State or the electoral board. A recount may be requested for ballot questions when the difference between success or defeat is less than 50 votes or less than one percent of the total votes cast. To get a recount, fifty or more qualified voters must sign and file a petition from the determination of the State Board or the electoral board for a recount of the vote as set forth in this article. See § 24.2-800.
Who performs official, state-sponsored audits?
The Department of Elections conducts post-election risk-limiting audits on voting machines on an annual basis after elections in the Commonwealth the guidelines for this process are detailed in § 24.2-671.2 of the Virginia code. A risk limiting audit requires selected localities to conduct a randomized hand count of ballots. The hand count continues until there is either strong statistical evidence that the reported elections results are correct or if the evidence does not confirm the results of the election. There will be a full hand count of all ballots cast in the contested race, which will then determine the outcome. The results of these audits are publicly available.
Risk limiting audits are conducted by a locality’s election board and general registrar under the supervision of the Virginia Department of Elections. They are open to the public, the Virginia Department of Elections provides information on where voters can observe the ballot retrieval and auditing process in their locality.