Election officials begin $20-29M project to replace Virginia’s voter system

By: - May 28, 2021 12:02 am

Voters at a polling station in Buckingham County, Va., November 3, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce / For the Virginia Mercury)

For years, local officials have been complaining that Virginia’s all-encompassing election software — which powers everything from voter registration to absentee ballots to list maintenance to transmission of results — is slow and hard to use.

A 2018 report from state auditors verified those frustrations, concluding the Virginia Election and Registration Information System, or VERIS, was “not sufficiently functional or reliable.”

Election administrators are planning to fix that by by replacing the IT system, a project estimated to cost between $20 million and $29 million.

Though voters may not notice a major change, officials said, the workers assisting them will hopefully have a much smoother time calling up information in the new system and making changes to a voter’s status.

“From an administrative point of view, it’s going to be a huge change. And a positive one,” said elections Commissioner Chris Piper. “If we can have a better system for them to maneuver through, it will ensure that voters have a safe and secure experience when they go to cast their ballot.”

The state recently solicited bids from companies interested in providing a replacement IT system and expects to award the contract in the fall. The new system and VERIS are expected to run “concurrently” for the 2022 elections, Piper said, with the new system going fully operational in 2023.

Though long planned, the VERIS replacement comes as election administration remains in the political spotlight. Republican candidate for governor Glenn Youngkin has made “election integrity” one of his top campaign talking points, an emphasis Democrats have criticized as lending credence to baseless theories about election fraud in Virginia and beyond.

Virginia scrapped the last of its touchscreen voting machines in 2017 in response to hacking concerns, moving to paper ballots fed into readers that aren’t connected to the internet.

There was no evidence of fraud in the 2020 presidential election in Virginia, and a post-election statistical audit validated President Joe Biden’s victory in the state with more than 99 percent certainty.

The only major technical hiccup came about a month before the election, when a severed cable in Chesterfield County knocked out the state government’s entire IT infrastructure, including VERIS. The outage occurred on the final day for Virginians to register to vote in the presidential election, a problem significant enough a judge ordered the state to reopen registration for another 48 hours.

While the cable issue was unrelated to the inner workings of VERIS itself, it underscored the damage IT spottiness can do to  core government functions.

Though Democrats have used their legislative majorities to usher in sweeping election policy changes, there hasn’t been an equivalent focus on the technical side.

This year, the Voter Protection Corps advocacy group, whose advisory board includes several Democratic members of Congress as well as former Virginia technology secretary Aneesh Chopra, issued a report calling attention to VERIS’s problems, which the group said include “crashing on heavy voter registration days, running slowly during peak hours, failing to connect to pollbooks and even serving up incorrect information to some pollbooks.”

“In advance of same-day registration taking effect in 2022, Virginia must have a new system in place,” the group’s report said. “Voter registration databases are critical infrastructure on which the whole voting system runs and Virginia cannot go another federal election cycle without substantial upgrades.”

The state received $10 million in federal election security grant funding last year that intends to use for the VERIS replacement. In the 2021 legislative session, policymakers increased the state’s matching funds to $18.7 million, enough to fund the project.

The exact functionality of the new system won’t become clear until the state chooses a vendor and moves deeper into specifics.

To prepare, officials with the state’s Department of Elections visited several city and county registrars to get a better feel for VERIS’s shortcomings and how the new system could address them. Those findings were recapped in a series of reports, and many of the complaints are familiar to anyone who works with big datasets and software.

“When lawsuits come up, the localities are asked for a lot of correspondence from VERIS and they have to download lots of data. Some is in PDF format. Some in Excel format,” said one report. “However, the [registrars] feel it should all be in Excel so they can work with it to produce exactly what is needed. They cannot work with PDFs.”

For voter names that include special characters or accent marks, another note said, registrars have to replace them with their Latin-alphabet equivalent, because “looking up voters with VERIS’ search is impossible with special characters.”

Other VERIS users reported connectivity and data-matching issues with voter registration info processed through the DMV and criminal-justice records used in the restoration of voting rights for people with felonies.

Redistricting and assigning people to the correct polling place has also been a challenge, partly due to the lack of a built-in geographic information system. In 2017, almost 150 Fredericksburg-area voters cast ballots in the wrong House of Delegates district, prompting Democrats to push unsuccessfully for a do-over election in a swing district they lost by just 73 votes.

“They would like to have GIS for redistricting,” state officials noted after talking to registrars. “They’ve forgotten to update street blocks and people end up in the wrong precinct because this is such a manual process, prone to errors… It would be great if the state had someone who could check behind them or if the new VERIS could help with this.”

Piper said he anticipates the new system will give the state more flexibility to update software on the fly instead of trying to patch up an aging IT infrastructure implemented in 2007.

“At the end of the day the biggest change will be that it will just be more modern,” Piper said. “So that we’re not spending a lot of time and resources to make upgrades.”

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.