Former President Donald Trump isn't as popular in Old Town Alexandria as the official election returns might lead you to believe.
According to data from the Virginia Department of Elections of the 2020 election, Trump won the City Hall precinct with 59 percent of the vote. It was a huge victory for the Republican candidate for president, eclipsing the performance of Ronald Reagan in 1984 and George H.W. Bush in 1988. The blowout victory was especially shocking because Trump's 2016 performance at the City Hall precinct was the worst showing since Barry Goldwater in 1968.
But there's a problem with the data. It's a mirage, one that will soon evaporate now that Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) has signed a bill forcing election officials to count absentee voters in the precinct where they live instead of a citywide at-large precinct.
"Central absentee pools are large and murky and very hard for folks to follow," said Sen. David Suetterlein (R-19). "And so on election night it often looked like counties and where they were going on the presidential level, it looked like they were going one way when in fact there was still more than half the vote left to be counted."
Absentee ballots have always been counted in a citywide at-large precinct, which created a data problem even before the pandemic. For many years, Democrats have been more likely to vote absentee. That means an examination of precinct level data didn't reflect a fully accurate view of neighborhood political dynamics. Then the pandemic caused an explosion of absentee voting, and the precinct level data became almost useless. Efforts to require absentee ballots be counted at the precinct level were met with opposition from registrars who said it would be too complicated or too expensive.
But it's not just a problem for historians digging through election returns or candidates trying to figure out which neighborhood to target. For people eager to cast doubt on the integrity of elections, it's a way to deny the outcome of an election and undermine democracy. That phenomenon was on full display in 2020, when Trump falsely declared victory in the early morning hours after the election and then engaged in a campaign of lies to overturn the results of the election.
The former president was able to exploit this flaw in the system because of a phenomenon known as "election mirages," early precincts giving an indication that momentum is heading in one direction when the massive at-large precinct has yet to report. That's exactly what happened on election night in 2020, when many Democrats were freaking out over early returns showing Trump performing well in Alexandria.
"As the precinct totals started coming in, I was just getting these panicked texts from people. And I said, 'People, chill out. Calm down,'" said Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson. "People are freaking out and there's still two thirds of the vote that we don't know yet."
As the popularity of absentee voting increased over recent years, the value of precinct-level data suffered. After the pandemic caused voters to consider safety protocols, 80 percent of Alexandria voters cast an absentee vote instead of going to the polls on election day. That means the vast majority of votes were not recorded in the precincts where voters actually live, giving a funhouse mirror view of precinct returns that was distorted by the political persuasion of people who chose to show up at their local precincts on Election Day rather than vote absentee. Now that bad data will be corrected for the November general election.
"Data breeds confidence," said Wilson. "And so as voters see and understand how trends happen, it helps build confidence in the system."
For Democrats, the new law is a way to prevent Republicans from using early returns to foster doubt in election returns. For some Republicans, it's a way to combat the growing mistrust in the system by showing the integrity of election results in real time. Suetterlein, who introduced the bill that's now a law, was one of six Republican senators brave enough to vote against a budget amendment that would have spent $70 million to audit the 2020 election. Most Republican senators either voted for it or took a walk and failed to be recorded as supporting or opposing a $70 million audit.
"There's a lot of things we can do to restore confidence in elections," said Suetterlein. "But this, more than anything else, we can do so folks can clearly see the election results reflect the reality of the votes being cast in their community and in other communities across the commonwealth."