Attorney General Jason Miyares is introduced in the Senate gallery. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Attorney General Jason Miyares is creating a new unit dedicated to ensuring “legality and purity in elections,” his office announced Friday.
The 20-person team, the attorney general’s office said, will investigate and prosecute potential violations of election law and be a legal resource for state and local election officials.
“I pledged during the 2021 campaign to work to increase transparency and strengthen confidence in our state elections,” Miyares, a Republican who defeated former Democratic attorney general Mark Herring last year, said in a news release. “It should be easy to vote, and hard to cheat. The Election Integrity Unit will work to help to restore confidence in our democratic process in the Commonwealth.”
The unit will not have its own budget, according to the attorney general’s office, and most of the staffers will continue working on other topics in addition to election issues.
The announcement comes as many Republicans in Virginia and elsewhere continue to echo baseless conspiracy theories about the 2020 election being stolen from former President Donald Trump. Earlier this year, Miyares parted ways with a top deputy he hired to oversee election issues, Monique Miles, after the Washington Post revealed Miles made social media posts that falsely claimed Trump won and praised the Jan. 6 rioters. At the time, Miyares’ office said it was unaware of the posts before the hire.
“The Attorney General has said countless times that Joe Biden won the 2020 election,” Miyares spokeswoman Victoria LaCivita said Friday in response to emailed questions from the Mercury.
In Virginia, Trump lost to President Joe Biden by about 10 percentage points, or more than 450,000 votes. A post-election audit of a small sample of ballots overwhelmingly confirmed the validity of that result.
Miyares’ move drew swift condemnation from Democrats, who suggested the new election unit will be chasing flimsy voter fraud claims to appease the conservative base.
“With the creation of this unit, Attorney General Miyares has fully embraced Trump’s ‘Big Lie’ and the far-right fringes of the Republican party,” said Democratic Party of Virginia spokesman Gianni Snidle.
Some Democratic lawmakers reacted with mockery. On Twitter, Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, joked Miyares would next create a “Ghost Busting Unit that will hunt for ghosts and ghouls across the Commonwealth.”
Just prior to 2020, Democrats made major changes to state election procedures designed to make voting easier, like allowing 45 days of excuse-free early voting and eliminating a mandatory photo ID rule.
Virginia Republicans vigorously opposed those changes, claiming they would open the door to fraud and other voting shenanigans. But Miyares and other Republicans went on to surprising wins in a high-turnout 2021 election under those same laws, an outcome some saw as proof the state’s election system works and isn’t susceptible to fraud. Republicans still tried to overturn many of those laws during this year’s General Assembly session, but the repeal efforts were blocked by the Democratic state Senate.
Before losing power, Democrats also passed a state-level voting rights law meant to create new protections for minority voters and prevent race-based vote suppression.
State law already gives the attorney general’s office “full authority to do whatever is necessary or appropriate to enforce the election laws or prosecute violations thereof,” and it’s not uncommon for the office to investigate misconduct claims the state’s election bureaucracy is unequipped to handle.
While praising the Miyares announcement, the Republican Party of Virginia pointed to the recent indictment of Michele White, a former top election official in Prince William County, on corruption charges. Details have been scarce in that case, which the attorney general’s office announced Wednesday. Current Prince William County Registrar Eric Olsen told media outlets a small number of votes in the 2020 election may have been affected, but not enough to change any election outcomes.
“By prosecuting this individual, Attorney General Miyares is sending a strong message to election officials throughout the state to follow the law, because our election process must be held to a high standard,” the Virginia GOP said in its statement. “Today’s announcement is a continuation of Virginia Republicans’ commitment to secure elections.”
Asked if Miyares believes there was fraud in the 2020 election, LaCivita pointed to the recent indictment in Prince William and said the office “cannot comment on pending investigations.”
Though there have been no high-profile cases of fraudulent votes being cast in Virginia recently, there have been occasional complaints that some election-related laws, from campaign-finance rules to transparency requirements for political advertising, are too loosely enforced. The Virginia Department of Elections is often asked to adjudicate complaints, but it has little to no investigative powers.
Under Virginia’s election oversight system, Republicans automatically gain majority control of the state elections board and all 133 local election boards due to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s victory last year. The state board is already under Republican control due to the resignation of a Democratic member who became a judge. All local boards will flip to GOP majorities next year, which could mean more boards asking the attorney general’s office to look into alleged election discrepancies.
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