Study finds Department of Elections fails to help local registrars, was subject to political influence

By: - September 10, 2018 2:39 pm

Virginia’s state flag flies in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

The state Department of Elections isn’t watching elections as closely as it should, isn’t providing help to local registrars and has often been politically influenced because of its staffing structure, a study by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission found.

JLARC staff presented 21 recommendations that ranged from funding a multi-million dollar overhaul of the Department of Elections’ computer system to restructuring leadership positions in the department — a move that would have to be proposed and approved by the General Assembly.

“I hope we’ll seriously look at all these recommendations, budgetary and statutory,” said Del. Steve Landes, R- Verona, during a presentation of JLARC’s findings to lawmakers Monday.

The Department of Elections is constantly trying to keep up with an increasing workload, said Commissioner Chris Piper. He was appointed in January but worked previously in the Department of Elections for eight years in different positions.

Virginia has more elections per year than most other states — three in a regular year, Piper said, and four during presidential election years. That doesn’t account for special elections. Virginia has had 49 of those in the last five years, Piper said.

He told the JLARC committee that unplanned events also add to the department’s workload. The department often gets Freedom of Information Act requests right before election season, which can overwhelm staff. Redistricting also adds to the workload, he said.

And the department is “perpetually in litigation,” Piper said. It’s named as a defendant in the current redistricting case involving 11 House of Delegates districts as well as a civil case about forged signatures in the 2nd Congressional District.

“I do not bring all of this information to your attention in an effort to seek pity,” Piper told the committee. “I do it to explain to you the extraordinary effort that is going on behind the scenes at the Department of Elections each and every day. We are a small agency with a huge mandate and we take our responsibility for ensuring the sacred right of the vote seriously.”

JLARC surveyed and interviewed local registrars and state elections staff and found that local election officials don’t get the guidance from the state they require and the state isn’t monitoring local officials closely enough.

Local registrars often make decisions on their own as to which voters should be purged from the voter rolls and which ones can stay on the list. The state doesn’t provide clear guidance on that process, and the state doesn’t have a full-time employee dedicated to checking the lists, the study found.

Despite that, Virginia has a “mostly accurate” voter registration list created from Department of Motor Vehicles, Department of Health and court records.

But a “very small percentage” of voters may be assigned to the wrong legislative districts because the state doesn’t tell registrars how to assign voters to districts and local election offices don’t have access to the same kind of mapping technology as the state.

Last year, Democrat Shelly Simonds lost to Republican David Yancey to represent Newport News’ 94th House of Delegates District in a race that underscored just how important each vote can be. She originally trailed him by 10 votes, then was ahead by one vote in a recount. Then, a panel of judges ruled one ballot that had been tossed should be counted for Yancey. State officials ultimately settled the tie by pulling names out of a bowl.

This year, The Washington Post found 26 voters in that district had been misassigned, potentially costing Simonds a clean win and giving Republicans a 51-49 majority in the House.

The Department of Elections has identified misassigned voters, according to the study, though it doesn’t say if the voters have been reassigned to the correct districts or where they were found.

Among other findings: the statewide computer system all election officials use is slow and often crashes, like it did before the voter registration deadline for the 2016 presidential election, the study says.

And because three of the 47 positions in the Department of Elections are appointed, work can also be politically influenced. Those positions often change when a new administration is elected, the study noted, and the rationale for some of the appointed positions was unclear to JLARC staff.

“Under the previous agency leadership, there was a perception among some staff and general registrars of political bias,” JLARC’s report stated. “This bias was reflected in decisions about some policies or aspects of agency operations. According to current and former ELECT staff, leadership created an environment in which one party was openly supported over the other.”

The report did not offer any other details about the allegations of bias, which Speaker of the House Del. Kirk Cox, R- Colonial Heights, called “devastating.”

“If there’s any group that has to have integrity … it’s this group,” he said at the committee meeting.

The study noted there have been improvements since Piper took over as commissioner.

Committee member Chris Jones, R- Suffolk, said regardless of what Piper has fixed, lawmakers should make permanent changes so when Piper leaves, old problems don’t arise again.

JLARC staff said the General Assembly could get rid of two of the three appointed positions in the Department of Elections and create one non-appointed staff position for a director of operations.

Some of JLARC’s recommendations can be carried out at the direction of Piper, while others will require legislative action.

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Mechelle Hankerson
Mechelle Hankerson

Mechelle, born and raised in Virginia Beach, is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in mass communications and a concentration in print journalism. She covered the General Assembly for the university’s Capital News Service and was among 12 student journalists in swing states selected by the Washington Post to cover the 2012 presidential election. For the past five years, she has covered local government, crime, housing, infrastructure and other issues at the Raleigh News & Observer and The Virginian-Pilot, where she most recently covered the state’s biggest city, Virginia Beach. Mechelle was with the Virginia Mercury until January 3rd, 2019.