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Bumper crop of candidates made 2023 a unique election year

“All this activity took an amazing number of people to get the work done,” Electoral Board chair Hanley says

How complicated were Fairfax County’s Nov. 7 elections? Consider the 2-inch-thick binder with 265 ballot designs held up by Fairfax County Electoral Board chairman Katherine Hanley on Dec. 5 when she delivered her annual election post-mortem to the Board of Supervisors.

“This year, the off-off-year, was more complicated than your 2019 election or any other in my memory,” she said. “It was also the longest ballot. Literally, it was on 19-inch paper. We’ve never done that before.”

This year’s election featured a total of 117 candidates seeking 61 offices. In 2019, there were only 94 candidates, Hanley said.

Voters cast a total of 323,816 ballots, including 207,630 on Election Day, 64,371 via early voting, 36,645 by mail, 11,270 by drop box and 3,900 accepted provisional votes. Turnout was 41 percent.

Voters still were confused by redistricting, as this was the first year when local and state officials ran in new districts established in 2022, Hanley said.

County officials mailed sample ballots to all voters in late September to help them find their proper polling places and alert them to various political races and bond issues would be before them. But apart from General Assembly races, Virginia law required those sample ballots not to list candidates by party affiliation, she said.

This proved to be the most common complaint lodged by voters at the polls, but local political parties helped matters by distributing (at least 40 feet from the entrances of polling places) sample ballots listing their nominated or endorsed candidates, Hanley said.

Getting a handle on voting trends is hard because each year’s election is different, she said.

Voter participation has been trending upward, while the percentage of registered voters has increased at about the same level as population growth, she said.

Same-day voter registration is a “mountain that we have to climb,” Hanley said, adding that this process, begun in 2022, requires additional staff both at the polls and during post-election processing.

“Same-day registration is increasing the number of provisional voters, although it’s also making it easier for people who have moved to vote at the polls,” she said.

The number of write-in ballots this year was unusually high, Hanley said. State code requires that if more than 10 percent of ballots cast in a specific race are write-ins, they must be transcribed, tabulated, counted and reported via typed list to the state board of elections, she said.

The Fairfax County Office of Elections transcribed and counted about 68,000 write-in ballots in the November election. More than 65,000 of those were in the race featuring unopposed Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano; the rest were in contests for the Vienna Town Council and Clilfton Town Council and mayoral races, Hanley said.

Adding to the complication, 2023 marked the first time that the Vienna and Clifton municipal elections had been on the November ballot, following the General Assembly’s passage of a 2021 law that did away with May elections.

“It took 18 teams of two people two days to transcribe the write-in names, then the members of the Electoral Board reviewed those that were difficult to decipher,” Hanley said. “You have no idea how many different ways names can be spelled.”

The county’s elections team included 433 people in pre-election activities, 2,803 on Election Day and 241 after the election, for a total of 3,477 people.

“All this activity took an amazing number of people to get the work done,” she said.

The county provided 16 early voting locations, three of which (the Fairfax County, North County and Mount Vernon government centers) and were open 45 days before the election and 13 more open between Oct. 26 and Nov. 4. Of those 13 that were open for 10 days, voters cast the most ballots at West Springfield Government Center (4,627), closely followed by the McLean Governmental Center (4,359).

Fairfax County has offered satellite-voting locations since 1977, Hanley noted.

Absentee voting by mail began Sept. 22, with the Office of Elections mailing out 59,561 ballots, most of which to people on the permanent-absentee-voter list.

The county has 265 voting precincts and data entry proved problematical, as it had to be done “name-by-name, precinct-by-precinct, one at a time,” Hanley said.

Because the Veterans Day holiday this year caused a crunch in meeting the deadline of Nov. 14 at noon for reporting election results, Hanley suggested moving the final reporting date to the second Friday after the election might relieve some of that pressure.

Hanley thanked county officials for providing facilities, technical support and security for the elections process. A total of 167 precincts – 72 percent of the overall amount – are located in Fairfax County Public Schools on Election Day, she said.

The work done by elections staffers is hard, but essential to democracy, said Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay (D).

The last two local elections drew 100,000 more voters than the previous two, largely because of new laws passed in Richmond that made voting easier, he said.

While it sometimes has been aggravating and more costly to field the new influx of voters, “it’s the cost of democracy,” McKay said.

Before departing, Hanley thanked Supervisor Penelope Gross (D-Mason) for her 28 years of service on the board.

“It is exemplary and you have really been steadfast in serving this public,” said Hanley, who  served with Gross on the board when she was Providence District supervisor and later chairman.