Lawmakers budget money to maintain voter rolls, fix elections system

By: - February 12, 2019 5:01 am

High turnout in 2018 meant long lines at many polling places, including Henrico County’s Short Pump precinct, where the number of votes for Democrats has surged since Trump’s 2016 election. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury) — Nov. 6, 2018.

Lawmakers want to spend more money on the Department of Elections, which lacks adequate staff and technology to perform some of its duties, according to a report by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission.

The study found that the department uses a computer system that tends to crash on important days, that there isn’t enough staff for training and there have been agency leaders who showed political bias.

The state Department of Elections doesn’t fund local elections, which are the responsibility of local governments. The department, does, however, create guidance and regulations for local governments to follow.

The House of Delegates proposed adding $1.2 million to the already approved $17.8 million budget to help with elections administration at the state level.

Included in the House budget proposal is $297,443 for two full-time positions to help maintain the voter rolls in the state. The JLARC report said the list of 5.5 million voters is “likely mostly accurate” but people could still end up assigned to the wrong district because there isn’t enough guidance for local registrars on when to remove voters from rolls or assigning them to precincts.

“ELECT oversight has not sufficiently focused on key functions such as assigning voters to legislative districts and precincts, or precinct operations on elections day,” the report said.

The Senate proposed $800,000 in its own budget for some of the same items as the House, like training and voter list maintenance, as well as a language change to study general registrar pay in relation to similar employees. Senators also planned for a 3 percent pay raise for general registrars, whose salaries can be supplemented by localities.

Lawmakers will consider the two proposals in a budget conference committee. Members from each chamber are appointed to meet with each other and resolve differences between the budget proposals before sending it to the governor.

The department doesn’t have a comment on the proposals, said Chris Piper, commissioner of elections.

Even though the state checks voters through several different databases and against its own information, there aren’t enough people assigned to that job at the state level, JLARC found.

“(The Department’s) current staffing does not sufficiently prioritize the voter registration list; effective list management would likely require a full-time staff position with support from current IT staff,” the report stated.

Delegates are also open to putting money toward the computer system used to organize elections information — sometime in the future.

The House budget proposal would include a language change to withhold $1 million in previously earmarked funds to rebuild VERIS, the electronic system that manages elections information and has been known to crash in the middle of major elections event, like near the October 2016 voter registration deadline.

Since calendar year 2018, the Department of Elections has received an extra $1 million every year through the 2022 budget year to make fixes to VERIS. But work has been slow, and many improvements have yet to be addressed, the JLARC report stated. 

The idea to withhold the money instead of giving the department more came from the JLARC report. 

Once state elections staff come up with a plan for how to improve VERIS, money can be spent to implement it.

VERIS was adopted from another state more than a decade ago, JLARC found, and has been revised to fit Virginia’s needs.

Analysts said the decision to make small changes to VERIS instead of rebuilding it was based on a flawed evaluation that didn’t seek pricing from more than one vendor.

The JLARC report noted VERIS doesn’t count ballots, and doesn’t have a good mapping tool so it’s hard for registrars to assign voters to precincts correctly.

There’s also added pressure to strengthen VERIS to withstand “malicious attacks,” the JLARC report stated.

“The report indicated to us that something needed to be done,” said Del. Luke Torian, D-Prince William. He chaired the subcommittee that created that portion of the budget proposal. “It’s a good start.”


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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.