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After Questionable Ballot Spurred Recount, Virginia Makes Some Ballot Changes

Election ballots in Virginia will include clear instructions beginning in November about how voters should mark their choices, according to new guidelines approved by the State Board of Elections Friday.

By Dave Ress

Election ballots in Virginia will include clear instructions beginning in November about how voters should mark their choices, according to new guidelines approved by the State Board of Elections Friday.

The board's guidelines say ballots should specify that voters need to fill in the oval or box next to a candidate's name, or next to the line for a write-in, to cast their vote. The guidelines recommend using ovals.

The instructions should also say that any other marks on a ballot might not be counted, the guidelines say. Optical scan machines can't register a vote when a candidate's name is circled or underlined, and may not always recognize marks such as a check or "x." Such marks aren't looked at unless there is a recount.

In addition, the guidelines say instructions should inform voters that if they make a mistake on the ballot, they can ask election workers for a new ballot. Ballots are not counted by the optical scan machines when a voter tries to cancel a mistaken vote by crossing out a name, or writing a note about his or her actual choice.

Chris Piper, recently named commissioner of the state Department of Elections, said new guidelines are meant to make ballots easier to read, mark and be counted.

"They mainly make them look prettier," he said.

Work on the ballot guidelines project started before the November election, Piper said. An oddly marked ballot found during the recount of the race for the 94th House of Delegates race resulted in a tie. Del. David Yancey, R-Newport News, was returned to office only after drawing a lot.

The state board had not published ballot layout guidelines before.

The new guidelines detail the order in which offices and referendum issues should be listed on a ballot, specify how offices should be described and recommend layouts in either two or three columns,

The guidelines recommend the type used on ballots be at least 12 points, which is roughly 20 percent larger than the type in Daily Press newspaper stories.

In addition, the guidelines also allow the use of candidates' nicknames as part of their ballot listings, as well as the use of initials instead of first and middle names. In some cases, candidates are better known in those ways.

Separately, the board also approved new procedures to ensure quicker review of complaints about campaign material that does not properly disclose who authorized the advertisements, signs or mailers.

During the meeting in Richmond, city and county voter registrars spoke out about problems they've been seeing with online registration applications filed through the Department of Motor Vehicles.

The problems are marked in college communities, often targeted by voter-registration drives aimed at students. Many students prefer to vote where they go to school rather than in their parents' city or county.

But when students renew their drivers' licenses, they tend to use their parents' addresses. When that information is forwarded to registrars, it can appear as if they've moved.

That was the problem that kept at least two dozen Christopher Newport University students from voting at a Newport News precinct in the 2016 election. It emerged again last year, when several others were only able to cast provisional ballots. Those ballots were generally not counted when city Electoral Board's official review of vote totals found students were not registered in the city precinct where they thought they could vote.

Norfolk General Registrar Stephanie Iles told the State Board of Elections that between the impact of students and Norfolk Naval Station sailors renewing licenses and also registering through third-party voter registration drives, she has seen some people change their information two or three times in the weeks before the registration deadline.

It can also mean when students learn on Election Day that they aren't officially registered in Norfolk, they will cast a provisional ballot in the city and then, worried their vote might not be counted, will head home to their parents' hometown to vote there, Iles said. That raises the risk of a double vote, she said.

Iles and other registrars said they're frustrated that DMV does not collect needed information about citizenship, mental-health status and whether a person has been convicted of a felony when forwarding voter registration to them. Registrars need to know that information to add someone to their voter rolls.

Piper said staff at the state elections department have made sorting online registration gaps a top priority, as part of a review of all agency guidelines and regulations he has recently ordered.

(c)2018 the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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