Families head to the voting booths at Lucketts Community Center on Nov. 7 in Lucketts, Va. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
Last year’s race for state delegate in Newport News went down in Virginia history for its razor-thin margin. Republican David E. Yancey won on Election Day by 10 votes; Democrat Shelly Simonds beat him by a single vote in a recount. Then, a judicial panel declare a tie, so officials picked a name out of a bowl to determine a winner, and it was Yancey.
Now, a review of voter registration records and district maps by The Washington Post has found more than two dozen voters — enough to swing the outcome of that race — cast ballots in the wrong district, because of errors by local elections officials.
The misassigned voters lived in a predominantly African American precinct that heavily favored Democrats in the fall, raising the possibility that they would have delivered the district to Simonds had they voted in the proper race.
The impact of a Simonds win would have been felt far beyond Newport News.
It would have upended the balance of power in the House of Delegates, splitting the chamber down the middle — 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats. Yancey’s victory allowed the GOP to maintain control by a 51-to-49 margin, even after Democrats picked up 15 seats in a blue wave widely seen as a rebuke to President Trump.
The November electoral mix-up was one of many scattered throughout the state. In an analysis published in January, The Washington Post found about 6,000 registered Virginia voters were placed in the wrong state legislative district. Almost 2,600 of those misplaced voters cast ballots last November, according to a Post analysis of the recent data. While that’s a small fraction of the state’s 5.5 million registered voters, in close races like the Simonds-Yancey matchup, it could have made the difference.
Yancey declined to comment. For Simonds, The Post’s findings are yet another what-if.
“There are thousands of ways I could have won that election,” said Simonds, who is making another run for the seat in 2019’s election. “I met a woman recently who told me she had a breathing episode in the polling place . . . and the ambulance took her out of the polling place before she could vote for me. So many different ways. You’ve just given me another 26 ways.”
The frustration was double for state Democratic officials, who contend that voter misassignments may have also cost them a Fredericksburg-area House race last year. Democrats could have forced the GOP to share power in the chamber if they had picked up either the Newport News or Fredericksburg seat and would have taken outright control had they won both.
“We are dismayed and concerned that Newport News voters in HD-94 may have been unable to select their representative to the Virginia House of Delegates,” Jake Rubenstein, spokesman for the Democratic Party of Virginia, said via email. “Not only is voter disenfranchisement unacceptable in any form, this possible error — along with the misallocation of hundreds of Fredericksburg voters in the razor-thin HD-28 contest — may have affected the balance of power of the Virginia House. These type of mistakes must not continue going forward.”
John “B.T.” March, spokesman for the Republican Party of Virginia, blamed Democrats, who have controlled the state Department of Elections and local electoral boards across the state under Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and his predecessor, Terry McAuliffe (D).
“From the lack of printed ballots in the Lynchburg special election to the misassignment of voters in various House Districts [in] the November general elections, one thing is clear: The greatest threat to democracy in Virginia comes from Democrat-controlled electoral boards,” March said. “A review is desperately needed and the simple truth is Virginians should be less worried about Russian electoral interference and far more worried about the incompetence of Democrat-majority governance.”
A review is underway throughout the state, which holds elections for Congress this year. The House of Delegates will be up for election again next year, along with all 40 state Senate seats, which were not on the ballot in 2017.
“Governor Northam and his team are actively working with state and local elections officials to ensure that every vote cast in an election is properly counted,” Northam spokesman Brian Coy said in an email. “He supports the work the Department of Elections is doing along with the local elections offices to ensure voters are assigned to the correct districts and will work to ensure that the officials who administer our elections have every resource they need to do their jobs.”
Brian Cannon, executive director of the redistricting reform group OneVirginia2021, said problems like these threaten to undermine confidence in the electoral system. He faults not registrars, but legislators from both parties, saying highly gerrymandered political maps fracture communities for political advantage, not administrative ease.
“They’re asking [registrars] to perform a high-wire act,” Cannon said. “It’s a near-impossible task. Even if you get it right 99.9 percent of the time, it’s really not good enough for the 26 voters who ended up voting in the wrong election.”
The Newport News registration errors affected seven apartment buildings built in 2016 in a fast-growing area outside the gates of Joint Base Eustis, an Army installation, and about a 15-minute drive from Christopher Newport University.
In maps drawn according to district boundaries spelled out in state code, the apartment buildings are located inside the 94th House District. But the Newport News registrar’s office mistakenly placed them in the adjacent 93rd District.
Vicki Lewis, the local registrar, said in an email that the three streets were mistakenly placed in the wrong district in 2016 because of Zip codes.
“All of Ft. Eustis is in the 94th house with a zip code of 23604,” Lewis wrote. “All but 7 streets are in the 93rd house with a zip code of 23608. It appears that the streets in question were not on the map at the time they were added to the street file and because the zip code is 23608, they were added to the 93rd house district.”
Zip codes play no role in defining boundaries for state or federal legislative districts. The incorrectly assigned apartments are surrounded by about 6,800 registered voters who live in the same Zip code and were correctly assigned to the 94th District.
The errors remained in the system until The Post inquired about them a week ago. Lewis and state elections officials would not say whether they learned of the problem from The Post or on their own.
Similar errors tainted last year’s race for the 28th House District near Fredericksburg, where 147 people voted in the wrong race because local voter registration records placed them in the wrong district. Republican Bob Thomas won by 73 votes. Democrats sued for a new election but eventually dropped the case.
No one has suggested that the mix-ups were anything other than innocent errors.
Even Simonds, whose campaign made the middle-class, largely African American precinct “one of our main focus areas,” was sympathetic to registrars, many of whom lack access to the high-tech mapping tools available to the state and political parties.
“I believe in the people who work for our city, and I believe they’re honest,” she said. “I don’t see any ill will, but . . . now, heck, I’m going to pay attention to the new developments if they’re on the [district] line.’”
When the legislative districts are drawn, the boundaries are built, block by block, with the help of computer-mapping. The map is translated into a legal text description of the boundaries. Local registrars, who match voters to those districts, must first manually assign the districts to lists of local street blocks, sometimes getting as specific as one side of a street.
That process is the same for new developments, as was the case for the Newport News apartments. On official maps, the apartment buildings with about 76 registered voters are clearly located inside the 94th House District. But local elections officials placed them incorrectly in the neighboring 93rd, which Democrat Mike Mullin won with 60 percent of the vote over Republican Heather Cordasco.
Although ballots are secret and Virginia does not register voters by party, records suggest that 17 of the 26 people who live in the 94th District but were misassigned to the 93rd were likely to vote for the Democrat because they had voted since 2008 exclusively in one or more Democratic primaries. Only one of the 26 had voted in Republican primaries, and records for the remaining eight did not show primary participation.
Virginia’s lists of voters and street blocks are housed in a statewide database. When problems regarding misassigned voters surfaced in three districts in the Fredericksburg area last year, the state Department of Elections did not look to see if there were mistakes elsewhere. Edgardo Cortés, the state elections commissioner at the time, said his department was not responsible for making sure voters were assigned to the right districts.
But Chris Piper, the current elections commissioner appointed by Northam, said his department is working with local registrars to identify and fix problems.
So far this year, state House districts assigned to about 900 addresses have been changed, affecting about 1,700 voters, an analysis by The Washington Post has found.
The mix-up in Newport News was a frustration to Ashley McCoy, one of the 94th District voters who was incorrectly assigned to the 93rd. She voted a straight Democratic ticket that included Mullin in the House race instead of Simonds.
“I know that address is new. It wasn’t even in GPS yet,” said McCoy, 34, who works for a debt-collection company. “It’s a brand-new complex. I can understand the issue, but whenever you add anything new, you should be prepared — check and double check. . . . It’s a bustling area, and there’s a lot of new houses and complexes going up. You just have to be more diligent.”
Voters can look up their House district at whosmy.virginiageneralassembly.gov.
Julie Tate contributed to this report.