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Lawmakers to consider legislation that would change how absentee votes are counted

Lawmakers are about to consider a bill that supporters say would make elections more transparent and produce better data.

The recent rise in absentee voting has had an unintended consequence — much less data about where votes are coming from. Instead of votes being counted at your local precinct, they’re tabulated in one at-large precinct.

Republican Senator David Suetterlein of Roanoke has already introduced a bill requiring registrars sort absentee ballots by precinct.

"It's incredibly important that we count early votes by precinct rather than large, murky pools so that the results are clear and transparent and election mirages aren't produced on election night that then bad actors are able to try to us to manipulate folks later with," Sutterlein explains.

Registrars say they see this change coming, although they want to make sure lawmakers understand the details about what's involved in making it happen. Brenda Cabrera is president of the Voter Registrar's Association, and she says the act of physically sorting the ballots is probably not necessary.

“The counting is an electronic process," says Cabrera. "And so there really is no administrative reason to go through thousands of ballots and sort them into 300 piles.” 

Registrars say one of two things is needed to make this happen. Either election officials have individual ballots pre-printed for each and every voting precinct or they have special printers to print individual ballots on demand. Either way, they say, making this change is going to cost money.

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

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria.