Elected leaders need to stand up for election officials

March 9, 2022 12:02 am

Campaign signs outside a polling station in Richmond, Va., November 2, 2021. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury)

By Chris Piper 

In 2018, when I was appointed commissioner of the Virginia Department of Elections, our focus was combating foreign interference in our elections, protecting our election systems from foreign attack and beginning to understand how social media was influencing our elections with mis/disinformation. 

But as I close out my term as commissioner, that focus has grown to include combating interference from our own elected leaders who spread false information about how our elections are administered, endangering the very future of our system of government. Meanwhile, election officials across the country are retiring or switching careers at unseen rates because they are facing physical threats simply for doing their jobs to the best of their abilities. 

Since 2020, Virginia has created a system to increase access to the ballot while implementing some of the strictest security standards in the country. Forty-five days of no-excuse in person and absentee voting and the Virginia Voting Rights Act have made it easier to vote. Upgrades in our election systems technologies, strong processes to ensure strict chain of custody and numerous other steps have been taken to create even greater security of our elections. 

Policies increasing access to the ballot were on full display in the elections of 2020 and 2021. In 2020, in the midst of a global pandemic, Virginia saw more ballots cast and a higher percentage of turnout than in any other year since the implementation of the Motor Voter law in 1996. This trend continued in 2021 with the most voters and highest percentage of voters casting a ballot for governor.

As we all know, the winners in 2020 and 2021 were opposite political parties. The Democratic candidate at the top of the ticket in 2020 won Virginia by more than 10 points. A year later, the Republican candidates swept statewide offices and picked up seven seats to take a majority in the House of Delegates. 

Virginia’s approach to elections has allowed record numbers of people to cast ballots securely without sacrificing healthy competition for officeholders. 

Reasonable people can disagree on policies on how we administer our elections, but to attack dedicated and passionate election professionals who literally put their lives on the line to conduct the 2020 Presidential election and 2021 Gubernatorial election is completely out of line. Virginia officials have thankfully not been the target of such threats. But we have not been immune from harassment and accusations. Election officials in Virginia are still being harassed, our motives questioned, and the results of these elections cast into doubt. I believe the reason for this is twofold. 

First, most voters do not have an understanding of how elections are administered. Voters show up on Election Day, cast their ballot, watch the results come in, and talk about the winners and losers the next day without a thought given to the amazing amount of work required to conduct such an event.. Thousands of election officials work day in and day out year round to ensure every vote is counted and every vote is secure. They create chain of custody logs, audit voting equipment and perform voter list maintenance activities. The days of a part-time election clerk are gone. Election officials must be highly trained full-time professionals in order to be successful. 

Virginia spends nearly $30 million a year to promote the Virginia Lottery, and nearly $25 million to promote tourism, but the House of Delegates recently cut a modest $1.25 million for voter education and outreach. In a time when more Virginians than ever before have doubts that elections are fair and secure, what sense does it make to strip away a small amount of money to educate voters what election officials do to ensure their vote is counted and to promote confidence in our elections? 

The second issue is our elected leaders are not standing in support of election officials. Simply stating that they believe the election was not rigged while standing on stage with individuals who spread such false claims only serves to legitimize those claims. Our elected leaders must regularly remind the voters that elections are administered by their friends and neighbors, not politicians. 

Finally, the most concrete step Virginia can take to reinvigorate our voters’ faith in the elections process is to pass Sen. Jill Vogel’s Senate Bill 371 which will remove the authority of the Governor to appoint the Commissioner of the Department of Elections and hand it to a bi-partisan State Board of Elections. The Commissioner’s role as chief election official for the Commonwealth of Virginia should be untarnished by political patronage and beholden only to the voters, not the elected representatives whose elections the commissioner will directly oversee. I am encouraged that Gov. Glenn Youngkin has indicated support and that the bill is moving through the General Assembly. 

In the end, though, the public needs to be able to trust elections. The surest way for that to happen is to educate them on how elections are run and for our elected leaders to support the work of election administrators. 

Chris Piper is the outgoing commissioner of the Virginia Department of Elections.

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Guest Column

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