An election official wipes down a table after every voter in Buckingham County, Nov. 3, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce / For the Virginia Mercury)
Claims by Republican legislators in Virginia about “voter integrity” can sound so, so seductive — until you peel back the layers of their arguments.
Electoral policies often are near the surface when the General Assembly convenes, as it did Wednesday. Among the areas of debate this time: Democrats, including Gov. Ralph Northam, want to amend the Constitution and end the disenfranchisement of felons. This racist practice dates to Virginia’s 1901-02 Constitutional Convention, at a time when Jim Crow reigned in the South.
Here’s my overly broad statement about voting in the commonwealth: Democrats want to lower barriers, in part because more people will go to the polls — including folks who support Democratic candidates. Republicans erect barriers in this increasingly blue state, because they believe a fair fight will lessen their chances of winning.
That’s why GOP lawmakers repeatedly support proposals that are akin to firing a gun to kill an ant. The tactic can work, but a lot of damage will be left in its wake – especially toward Democratic-leaning groups, including African Americans and Latinos.
Just take a look at some of the voting-related bills this year.
Sen. Mark Peake, a Lynchburg Republican, is sponsoring SB1118, which would require local registrars to verify the name, date of birth and Social Security number of potential registrants to a specific database, like the Social Security Administration’s.
Peake said a case in Harrisonburg in 2016, in which a former James Madison University student turned in false voter registration forms, spurred him to offer the bill. (A city registrar’s office alerted authorities to the problem, long before anyone could vote illegally.) The senator told me two Democratic governors, including Ralph Northam, vetoed similar legislation that Peake had sponsored in the past.
Northam, in a March 2019 veto statement, said errors in a federal database could deny someone the right to register. He said the bill would inject “additional requirements Virginians have to satisfy in order to be eligible to vote.”
Northam added: “The constitutional right to vote should not be undermined by human error such as data entry mistakes or typos.”
When I interviewed Peake, he said there might be one other case he knew of involving similar voting fraud. Remember, we live in a state that has elections every year at the local, state or federal levels. Millions of people vote in the presidential election.
That’s plenty of trips to the polls, yet very few irregularities have been uncovered.
Del. Mark Cole, a Fredericksburg Republican, has offered HB1746, which mandates that registrars provide “a live video recording of each polling place while absentee ballots are cast, votes are counted and returns are completed, and of each central absentee precinct while ballots are handled and returns are completed.”
Wouldn’t this jeopardize the safety of poll workers? “I don’t believe this would put any election worker at risk,” Cole said Wednesday by email, “however, if they were concerned, they could wear a mask.”
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That’s a sanguine response given the lies Donald Trump has spouted since the November election. For example, two men from Chesapeake, supporters of GOP candidates, toted an AR-15 style rifle and handguns to Philadelphia while trying to monitor vote-counting in Pennsylvania, a swing state. The local district attorney charged the men with felony and misdemeanor weapons counts.
One of those men, Joshua Macias, recently released from jail, attended the demonstrations last week in Washington that later erupted in riots at the U.S. Capitol. His attorney said there’s no evidence he went inside the building.
This is what’s especially galling: Both Peake and Cole said their bills were attempts to improve voter integrity – after the titular head of their party lied repeatedly about the election results; tried to strong-arm the Georgia secretary of state into (euphemistically) “finding” more votes; and lost the Electoral College by the same total he defeated Hillary Clinton by in 2016 – when he had no problem claiming victory.
In fact, four GOP congressmen from Virginia opted to overturn the will of voters last week. Their stance providing credibility to bogus allegations was a disgrace. Earlier public statements by U.S. Republican House and Senate members emboldened the perpetrators who led a bloody assault on the Capitol.
“Because of what just happened, we have to give the public confidence in our election system,” Peake told me. “That it’s not rigged, not fake and that only legitimate voters voted.”
The person with the largest megaphone in the country spouted nonsense about his defeat, even after state officials and numerous courts said the results were legitimate. Trump’s own Justice Department, through then-Attorney General William Barr, declared there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud.
There’s no fact, no truth that will satisfy Trump’s supporters about the November result.
We live in a nation where Republicans obliterated ballot protections in many states after the Supreme Court, in 2013’s Shelby County v. Holder ruling, decimated the Voting Rights Act.
Nearly 1,000 polling places closed nationwide, many of them in Southern Black communities, in the first five years after that ruling. The federal Commission on Civil Rights concluded in 2018 that new state laws made it more difficult for minorities to vote after Shelby.
Bolstering integrity in elections won’t come from new laws. It will happen when Republican legislators start admitting the truth. At Trump’s behest, they’ve repeatedly lied and misled the American people.
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