Thousands of Virginia voters may be registered in the wrong state House district, raising the possibility of election disputes.

In a statewide analysis, The Washington Post found addresses of about 6,000 registered voters that appear to lie outside a map of the assigned House district. If their turnout tracked the state average, more than 2,800 mistaken state House votes could have been cast in November. Six of the 100 delegate races were decided by fewer than 500 votes. One was decided by a coin flip.

A state investigation found 384

misassigned registered voters in the 28th House District election. The Post found other pockets of potentially misassigned voters across the state.

Addresses that appear to be

assigned to the wrong district

Arlington

District 28

Richmond

Roanoke

Virginia Beach

A state investigation found 384 misassigned registered voters in the 28th House District election. The Post found other pockets of potentially misassigned voters across the state.

Addresses that appear to be

assigned to the wrong district

Arlington

District 28

Charlottesville

Richmond

Roanoke

Virginia Beach

Addresses that appear to be

assigned to the wrong district

Arlington

A state investigation found 384 misassigned registered voters in the 28th House District election. The Post

found other pockets of potentially misassigned

voters across the state.

District 28

Charlottesville

Richmond

Lynchburg

Roanoke

Newport News

Virginia Beach

One controversy stemming from such errors is now playing out in the 28th House District near Fredericksburg. Democrats are seeking a new election because 147 people voted in the wrong race, while Republican Bob Thomas won by just 73 votes. (They can’t just throw out the individual bad ballots since they can’t be identified). A state Department of Elections investigation there, launched following voter complaints, found the 147 affected voters got the wrong ballot because official voter registration records placed them in the wrong district.

[Judge won’t block Republican in tight Virginia House race tainted by ballot mix-up]

Local election officials say such mistaken votes can happen because the state’s labor-intensive voter registration system allows incorrect details to be recorded. And errors, once entered, are difficult to detect.

Walter Latham, the York County registrar and president of the Voter Registrars Association of Virginia, says registrars lack resources. “With elections, until there’s a problem, people aren’t worried … and it’s not a budget priority.”

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When the legislature redraws its districts, the boundaries are built, block by block, with the help of modern computer mapping. The map is translated into a legal text description of the boundaries, which goes to legislators for approval. But the local registrars, who match voters to those districts, must first manually assign the districts to lists of local street blocks, sometimes specifying down to the level of one side of a city block, or even a single apartment building. For instance, one list item could represent the odd side of 4th Street, address numbers 601 to 649.

That process is also used to update for new buildings, new streets or other changes that affect districts. "It can be very tedious," said Linda Lindberg, elections director and registrar in Arlington County. Latham said, “It’s about as manual a process as you can use and still be using a computer.”

Many of the registration errors found by the state in the 28th House District originated when districts were redrawn following the last Census in 2010, and so had been in place undetected for at least three legislative elections. A lawyer for Democrats protesting the 28th House District election said complaints about registration errors there started two years ago. Still, in the November election, some voters got the wrong ballot because no one had noticed that in the street block list “Charles” and “Charlotte” streets had been mixed up during redistricting.

Cul-de-sacs, like the one found below in District 27, can also add confusion since they don’t always have “sides” the way other streets do.

Addresses that appear to be

assigned to the wrong district

1/4 MILE

Fredericksburg

DISTRICT 28

DISTRICT 88

1/4 MILE

Midlothian

DISTRICT 68

DISTRICT 27

Addresses that appear to be assigned to the wrong district

1/4 MILE

Fredericksburg

Addresses that appear to be

assigned to the wrong district

DISTRICT 28

DISTRICT 88

1/4 MILE

Midlothian

DISTRICT 68

DISTRICT 27

Addresses that appear to be assigned to the wrong district

1/4 MILE

1/4 MILE

Fredericksburg

Midlothian

DISTRICT 68

DISTRICT 28

DISTRICT 27

DISTRICT 88

Another occasion for errors is new construction, according to Lindberg, the Arlington registrar. Imagine a street split by a district boundary, with homes on the left side of the boundary, but an empty field on the right. Registrars could properly consider this block to be in the left district, since all the homes on the block are in that district. But that means when homes are built on the right side of the boundary, and should be in the right district, they are actually included in the left district.

DISTRICT A

DISTRICT B

No houses are on this side, so the entire block is labeled District A even though the right side is District B.

Houses on left side of road belong to District A.

New houses are built, and the right side is incorrectly

counted as

District A.

DISTRICT A

DISTRICT B

Houses on left side of road belong to District A.

No houses are on this side, so the entire block is labeled District A even though the right side is District B.

New houses are built, and the right side is incorrectly

counted as

District A.

Michael McDonald and Brian Amos of the University of Florida also found the underlying geography of a district, especially in rural areas, can lead to errors. If a house is set far back from a road but the state geolocates it to be along the street, it could be coded into the wrong district.

The house is far back from the street and physically located in District B. But the nearest street corresponds to District A, and the computer incorrectly places it there instead of in B.

DISTRICT A

DISTRICT B

DISTRICT A

DISTRICT B

The house is far back from the street and physically located in District B. But the nearest street corresponds to District A, and the computer incorrectly places it there instead of in B.

Virginia’s lists of voters and street blocks are housed in statewide elections department databases, but Virginia Elections Commissioner Edgardo Cortés said his department has no responsibility to ensure voters are correctly assigned to districts or to implement district changes. The department’s investigation of the 28th House District race was a special project, using a recently acquired and exceptionally limited computer mapping capability to overlay a district map and registration address points to find geographic mismatches. This technology isn’t readily available to many registrars, according to Latham; some use it on an ad hoc basis.

The Post did a similar analysis, but looked statewide for these mismatches between the state House of Delegates map and address points. The result — 6,000 misplaced voters — is an estimate because the addresses counted include only those where the most precise map coordinates were readily available. Also, some of the state’s mismatches may since have been corrected.

There were no mismatches at all or fewer than 10 in the majority of the state's 133 counties and independent cities. Mismatches affecting more than 100 potential voters showed up in 11 percent of localities, and another 16 percent showed mismatches affecting more than 30 registered. The largest concentration was in neighborhoods around Roanoke and the 17th House District. In other areas such as Arlington County, a few address mismatches could involve large residential buildings.

Addresses that appear to be

assigned to the wrong district

1/8 MILE

Arlington

DISTRICT 47

1/4 MILE

Roanoke

DISTRICT 17

Addresses that appear to be assigned to the wrong district

1/8 MILE

Arlington

DISTRICT 48

DISTRICT 47

1/4 MILE

Roanoke

DISTRICT 17

Addresses that appear to be assigned to the wrong district

1/8 MILE

1/4 MILE

Arlington

Roanoke

DISTRICT 48

DISTRICT 17

DISTRICT 47

Work by McDonald and Amos shows this is not a problem confined to Virginia. “These errors are happening everywhere,” McDonald said. “If we’re detecting them now in four state legislative districts, my assumption would be that they’re happening for other local district boundaries as well.”

The mistakes may not be common — the thousands of misplaced voters in Virginia and elsewhere pale in comparison to the millions on the voter roll — but as Virginia districts 28 and 94 showed, those misplacements can carry heavy consequences.

How do I know if I’m one of the wrongly placed voters?

For Virginia voters, potential district mistakes can be identified as a mismatch between the House district assigned to an address by the state voter registration system and where that address appears on a map of districts. Here’s how to check them both to see if they are the same.

Finding your House district assignment. You can look up your own assigned district at this state elections website.

Finding your address on a map. To find where your address falls on a House district map, use this state website. Put your address in the box at top right to search. Your state House district appears on the bottom left. Select the “Click to view districts” button to turn on the district map. Zoom in to make sure the address location appears accurate.

Enter your address

xxx

Check your district

xxx

Enter your address

Check your district

If the districts from the map and from voter registration match, you’re in the clear. If they don’t, like in the example, you may be among the affected and can contact your registrar .

Update (April 30, 2018): A reference to the website My Reps has been removed from this graphic because it no longer provides state House districts for Virginia addresses.

Laura Vozzella contributed reporting. Illustrations by Shelly Tan.

About this story

This story is based on a comparison of a computer map of current Virginia House Districts from the Division of Legislative Services and locations for voter addresses. Map coordinates for addresses were generated using Google Maps and were considered only if rooftop accuracy was reported. Some 2,700 addresses, home to about 6,000 voters, appeared on the map outside their reported House districts.

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