Votes Added, Voters Subtracted. What Happened With Richmond’s Election?
By Megan Schiffres
November 24, 2020

Some voters received the wrong ballots, while a week after the election, one council race result changes due to more than 1,200 extra votes.

RICHMOND-All Richmond residents had a chance to pick their president. They couldn’t say the same about the mayor and city council, however. That problem was one of several incidents in the city’s election where things just didn’t add up. Now four weeks later, we’ve seen votes added to tallies, voters subtracted and people unable to cast a ballot for their candidate. 

It led groups like the Virginia Democratic Party to call for Richmond Registrar Kirk Showalter to either resign or be dismissed. But while Richmond’s Electoral Board considers that request, the question remains as to what caused these issues? Do we have solutions in place? Unfortunately in most cases, the answer to that second question is no. 

Federal Ballots Pose a Problem

At first, André Graham didn’t realize anything was wrong. In fact, the 73-year-old barber didn’t know that he was given an incomplete ballot until he saw reports about it on the news.

“I feel that, not just for me but all the people behind me, [we] got screwed the same way,” said Graham. “[I] wanted to vote for Levar Stoney, [for] Spanberger. I wanted to vote for everyone that I felt could make a difference in the city of Richmond. But I didn’t get the opportunity. So, I felt kind of robbed.”

Showalter said Graham was one of five people who mistakenly got federal ballots at one polling place in the 6th precinct. The 6th precinct includes some of the poorest neighborhoods in Richmond, including the public housing complex Whitcomb Court, where the polling place is located.

The registrar denied that federal ballots had been disseminated in districts other than the 6th. It was just an accident that they were given out at Whitcomb Court, she said. 

“I looked at the Statement of Results for the precincts in the 7th district and they show that zero federal-only ballots were given out. I’ve not heard of any other precincts that gave out federal-only ballots,” said Showalter. 

Dogwood reached out to voters across the city, but could not confirm if federal ballots were used in other areas besides Whitcomb Court. Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, along with members of the Richmond Electoral Board, did not respond to interview requests. 

What Are Federal Ballots? 

Each precinct in the city received three types of ballots: full ballots with all offices up for election on them; federal ballots for people who live overseas and no longer reside in the U.S.; and presidential-only ballots for people who moved out of the Commonwealth within 30 days of the election. Federal ballots only let the person vote for president, their House of Representatives member and the U.S. Senate. 

According to the registrar, the federal ballots given out on Election Day were supposed to be in sealed containers. Poll workers were also given instructions not to open those boxes. 

“The likelihood that these persons will vote on Election Day is slim, but the state requires that a stock be sent to each precinct anyway during federal elections. We sent 25 to each precinct. They were in a separate container from the regular ballots and the officers had been instructed to make sure that they did not open the container unless they were very sure that they had one of these voters,” said Showalter. 

The registrar said ballots are handed out by poll officers, but she doesn’t know how incorrect ballots were mistakenly disseminated. 

It’s an issue because in city council races, which are often decided by a few hundred or less voters, even a handful of incorrect ballots could tip the scales. 

Voters Didn’t Get a Second Chance

According to Showalter, there is no way to correct this mistake once the ballot has been cast. Virginia election regulations say you can’t change your ballot once its scanned. Second district city council candidate Allen-Charles Chipman has issues with that concept. Chipman lost his race to incumbent Ellen Robinson and while the five votes wouldn’t have changed the outcome, he feels some Richmond voters lost their right to vote in local races. 

“I think sometimes we put too much emphasis when it comes to intimidation and voter suppression on intent. Good intent isn’t saving [people] from experiencing voter suppression,” said Chipman. “I think that a lot of our communities, frankly, are tired of well-meaning people having that negative impact on their communities with the decisions they’re making.”

Chipman isn’t the only one with that mindset. Distrust in the city’s election process, and in Showalter in particular, began last month when Richmond’s registrar was sued by the Democratic Party of Virginia.

Democrats filed the lawsuit after Showalter allegedly ignored repeated Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. These FOIA requests were for the names and total number of absentee voters in the city whose ballots contained errors. At first, Showalter claimed the records didn’t exist. Then on Oct. 21, she gave Democrats a list of 26 names. Even then, however, the lawsuit stated, she warned the list might be outdated. 

Two Conditions

Democratic officials said they would drop the lawsuit under two conditions. First, Showalter had to provide an updated list with the information they requested. Second, she had to keep that list current. She agreed and they dropped the lawsuit. 

However, a Nov. 17 letter to the Richmond Electoral Board from the Democratic Party of Virginia’s law firm Perkins Cole raises more questions. It says Showalter provided the Party with the updated list on Oct. 30. The letter says Showalter claimed “her office was researching voters’ contact information and once finding it, contacting them.” 

But the letter claims there’s no record of that actually happening. 

“The very list that she provided to [the Democratic Party] contained the contact information of numerous voters for whom no documented attempt to provide notice had been made,” the Nov. 17 letter says. 

When someone says an absentee ballot has mistakes on it, that means they list a Post Office box instead of a home address or they give their middle name, rather than their first. Virginia law states when you flag an absentee ballot with these issues, you have to notify the person within three days. You can do that through phone, email or writing. The Perkins Cole letter claims that part of state law was violated in this case. 

Showalter, who is currently in quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19, has said she’s unable to access her records to present her side of the story, as they are in the registrar’s office. Monday actually marked the first day that building was open in nearly two weeks. In addition to Showalter, 19 others in the office tested positive for COVID-19 after the election, causing the building to be shut down. 

Discrepancies in Recorded Votes

But the issues with ballots ran deeper than a lack of communication. When Richmond officials confirmed the official results Nov. 10, the unofficial and official results for the 2nd district council race didn’t match. They weren’t just off by one or two votes. Instead, the results changed by more than 1,200. It completely flipped the result. 

The 2nd district city council race between Catherine Jordan and Tavarris Spinks was unofficially called for Spinks by a margin of only 26 votes on Nov. 5. However, when the results were certified Nov. 10, Jordan won the seat by 1,244 votes. Showalter has not explained how the numbers shifted by such a large margin.  

 “You now have a situation where, not that these candidates are questioning the integrity of the election, but they are now having to second guess whether or not the information they are being presented with is accurate,” said Del. Lashrecse Aird, who oversees Richmond as the 4th congressional district chair of the Democratic Party of Virginia. “Unfortunately because of, in my opinion, failed execution at many stops along the way, that has resulted in a distrust of this election administration system.” 

Over 9% of the total amount of votes cast in this race weren’t reported until a week after Election Day. Spinks found this very unusual. 

“Early in the morning, at like 2 a.m., they posted the absentee results. And then they stood on the website for a full week. They were incorrect on the website and in the reporting. Let’s just say that’s very unusual. And then to be corrected so late, it’s not something that you normally see,” Spinks said. 

A Decrease in Voters?

In addition to widening the margin of victory for the 2nd district city council race, the official results also reduced the total number of recorded votes in that area. The number of votes cast decreased from 14,086 to 13,156, a difference of 960 votes which apparently never existed. Nobody can explain how this happened. 

“That’s very unusual. I’ve never seen that before in all my time monitoring elections,” Spinks said. “To be perfectly frank, I am a little skeptical.” 

In Richmond’s other competitive city council races, the total number of votes cast did not decrease between the unofficial and official results. In districts 1, 3, 5, 6, and 7, the total number of votes recorded in the unofficial and official results did not change. But in another odd shift, in district 8, the total number of recorded votes increased by 1,703. Again, no one can explain how the number climbed so high. In press conferences and interviews with Dogwood and other media, Showalter simply says her office did all they could to adapt to changing regulations and run an election in a challenging time. 

Spinks filed a FOIA request with the registrar’s office for the vote count records from each of the voting machines used in his district. He also requested access to an accounting of the registrars’ poll book. 

Aird expressed support for Spinks’s request on Twitter. She Tweeted the registrar ignored best election practices and refused to acknowledge requests for increased transparency. 

“I think that any individual that is in election administration has a huge responsibility. Because it’s not just an administrative function. You’re literally holding the rights of an individual in your hands. And the way you execute the duties of that administration can either protect those rights or suppress those rights,” Aird said. “I’m not saying that the mismanagement of the election team in Richmond did that deliberately. I would hope not. Especially as a public leader myself. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t result in such.”

Since last week, the Democratic Party of Virginia, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, Spinks and fellow former city council candidate Amy Wentz have all sent letters to the Richmond Electoral Board, calling for Showalter’s removal. 

But there were issues beyond just ballots in the city’s election. Coming up tomorrow, we’ll take a look at what happens when you relocate voting areas and make it more expensive for people to cast a ballot.

Meg Sciffres is Dogwood’s associate editor. Arianna Coghill is a staff reporter for Dogwood. You can reach them at [email protected].

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