Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, speaks to supporters outside the Capitol who have been rallying daily in support of an audit of Virginia’s election results. Donald Trump lost Virginia by 10 points and there has been zero evidence of widespread fraud. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Virginians will be hearing more from the state on how elections work after the General Assembly budgeted $1.5 million for voter outreach and fighting “misinformation” about state elections.
Asked for more detail on how the money will be used, Elections Commissioner Chris Piper offered a general overview and said more specifics will be made public later.
“It’s important for voters to understand all of the steps that we take to protect and secure elections,” Piper said, adding the effort will also cover what voters can do to make sure their ballot is counted.
The funding aroused suspicion among some Republican given the heightened political tensions over election administration and the GOP’s emphasis on “election integrity,” a buzzword Democrats say is a thinly disguised nod to right-wing conspiracy theories.
During the special legislative session this month, a small group of protesters has occasionally gathered outside the state Capitol demanding an audit of the 2020 presidential election, despite an earlier statistical audit finding there was virtually no chance the state’s ballot counting machines could have erroneously produced the 10-point victory President Joe Biden won in Virginia.
Republican lawmakers proposed stripping the election outreach funding from the plan to spend more than $3 billion in federal pandemic relief funds.
House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said the lack of explanation for what the money would pay for made the line item look “nebulous” or “code for something.”
“We didn’t know what it meant yet,” Gilbert said.
The money remained in the spending plan approved Monday by both legislative chambers.
Conspiracy theories surrounding the 2020 presidential election have been a headache for state and local election administrators targeted by conservative voters who believe former President Donald Trump’s baseless claims the election was stolen.
For example, the state Department of Elections was forced to issue a statement last year after a viral social media post encouraged voters to check records on a state website to see if their vote had been counted. The agency explained the voter database in question takes several days to update as election results are certified, meaning there was no cause for alarm.
Del. Marcus Simon, a Fairfax County Democrat who chairs the House Privileges and Elections Committee, called the voter information money “actual election integrity funding.”
“Combating misinformation and making sure people have access to unbiased, objective truth about election outcomes is the best way to restore confidence in the integrity of our democracy,” Simon said.
The spending plan also includes $3 million to help localities implement in-person early voting on Sundays, the latest in a series of Democratic bills meant to make voting easier.
The gubernatorial election in November, pitting former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe against Republican businessman Glenn Youngkin, seemed to inspire another election-related proposal during the special session.
Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, revived his effort to force all local election offices to report absentee results by the voter’s neighborhood-level precinct as opposed to lumping all early and mail-in votes together in one citywide or countywide absentee precinct.
After almost 60 percent of Virginia voters cast absentee ballots in 2020, Suetterlein has argued more precise geographic data showing which neighborhoods those votes came from would boost confidence in the results. Precinct-level data is also used by political analysts and party operatives to track trends in voter behavior, but state law doesn’t require localities to sort absentee ballots by precinct.
“’We need to do it now,” Suetterlein said on the Senate floor last week. “Because we should not allow another election to be questioned. If you do not like the discussion with folks who are trying to undermine our election results, this is a great opportunity for you to help make it very clear what our election results are.”
In the regular session earlier this year, Suetterlein’s bill easily passed the Democratic-led Senate but failed in the House of Delegates. In the special session, his proposed amendment again cleared the Senate but wasn’t included in the final bill after negotiations with the House of Delegates and Gov. Ralph Northam’s office.
A group of local registrars is currently working with the state to come up with a recommendation for how the General Assembly could implement the absentee change next year.
At a recent meeting of that group, there seemed to be general agreement localities will have to provide more detailed absentee data eventually. But many registrars suggested it could take days or weeks to provide the information after an election. Several said a rule requiring the data to be available on election night could slow down the process of declaring winners.
Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, said Suetterlein’s amendment was essentially moot because even if it passed registrars don’t have the money to change their processes by November.
“It will not become law,” Deeds said. “Because it’s just not practical at this moment.”
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