Voters fill out their ballots at the Taylor Masonic Lodge in Scottsville, Va., November 3, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce / For the Virginia Mercury)
Politicians will play politics. And there’s nothing wrong with that, generally.
The problem comes when the malignant notion takes hold that an overwhelmingly clean, fair process of administering elections is fair game for a partisan disinformation campaign to subvert public faith in the process and impose a corrupt system under one-party control.
The MAGA wing of today’s Republican Party knows that its ever-deepening right-wing nationalism, its penchant for bizarre and baseless conspiracies and the extremist candidates it attracts will alienate America’s mainstream and make it harder to win fair elections in an increasingly diverse nation without its heavy thumb on the scales.
The latest to give comfort toward that antidemocratic end is Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares, who is creating a 20-person “election integrity unit” in his office. That’s particularly dismaying because Miyares is not among the Republicans who falsely claim President Joe Biden usurped Donald Trump’s presidency through fraud. At least that’s what the office’s spokeswoman, Victoria LaCivita, recently assured the Mercury’s Graham Moomaw.
But Miyares can’t resist playing politics and pandering to the GOP’s Trumpist hard-liners whom he could ask to nominate him for governor of Virginia in less than three years.
I’ve covered elections and the machinery for carrying them out from the precinct level to the top echelons of state government for decades. Perhaps the most edifying part of that job is witnessing firsthand each year how ordinary Virginians, motivated by a strong civic spirit, invest exhausting hours at neighborhood voting precincts so citizens can vote. Up and down the line in Virginia, under Republican and Democratic administrations, election officials played it by the book without regard to party or ideology, helping Virginia’s electorate translate its collective will and wisdom into government policy.
The system was never perfect. Mistakes occur. Antiquated technology fails. There’s both misfeasance and malfeasance, but deliberate wrongdoing on a scale that can alter an election’s legitimate outcome is exceedingly rare.
One validation is the risk-limiting audits the Department of Elections conducts after each statewide election as required by Virginia law.
In the 2020 presidential and U.S. Senate races, the audit found that the risk of a mistake large enough to reverse outcomes of the election – victories for Democrats Biden and Sen. Mark Warner – was less than a ten-thousandth of a percentage point. Expressed another way, the audit found accuracy levels for both races exceeded 99.9999%.
For the 2021 race, dominated by Gov. Glenn Youngkin and his GOP ticket, the risk-limiting audit tested two House of Delegates races – the 13th House District won by Democratic Del. Danica Roem over Republican Christopher Stone, both from Manassas, and the 75th District won by Republican Otto Wachmann over longtime Democratic Del. Roslyn Tyler, both of Sussex – and again found accuracy levels exceeding 99.7%.
Malicious efforts to vote illegally or fraudulently influence an outcome are scarce if prosecutions or official litigation are a reliable measure.
The conservative Heritage Foundation has created a searchable online database of all the “recent proven instances of election fraud from across the country” that it can find. For context, it considers the early 1990s recent. It calls the database “a sampling” and “not an exhaustive or comprehensive list.”
The database, spanning at least eight presidential elections, documents 1,375 proven instances of fraud. Of that total, 1,182 resulted in criminal convictions, 48 resulted in civil penalties, 103 resulted in a diversion program, and 42 resulted in official or judicial findings, which can sometimes overturn the result of an election or exclude a candidate from the ballot.
Twenty of the 1,375 cases were in Virginia. They date to 2007, and none involved findings that reversed elections. Six of the cases were false registrations, and five each were for ineligible voting, mostly by felons, and ballot petition fraud, mostly bogus signatures. The most serious case, tried in 2007, involved the former mayor of Appalachia and 14 others who were convicted of conspiring to buy votes in the 2004 municipal election with, among other things, cigarettes, beer and pork rinds. The mayor served two years in jail and two years of monitored home detention in what the Heritage Foundation calls “the largest voter fraud conspiracy to date in Virginia.”
The most serious case, tried in 2007, involved the former mayor of Appalachia and 14 others who were convicted of conspiring to buy votes in the 2004 municipal election with, among other things, cigarettes, beer and pork rinds.
Because the database includes only cases in which there has been a dispositive outcome, it does not reflect the recent indictment of Michele White, a former top Prince William County election official, on corruption charges as announced by Miyares’ office. As The Washington Post reported on Sept. 7, current Prince William County Registrar Eric Olsen said that a small number of votes in the 2020 election may have been affected, but not enough to affect any election results.
Voting or election fraud is serious business in a democracy. It deserves to be prosecuted. For every vote illegally cast or every action that falsifies or cheats someone out of the right to vote, a citizen is deprived of his or her franchise, the most precious of blessings in a democratic republic. The same goes for deceitful and intimidating voter-suppression tactics.
But to assert that it is somehow pervasive, as “election integrity” crusades rooted in Trump’s corrosive election lies do, is wrong.
Consider that in the 15-year span during which those 20 Virginia cases were adjudicated, nearly 41 million Virginians voted in fall general elections. That doesn’t count special elections, local municipal or county races or primaries.
That’s hardly a ratio that demands a call to arms.
Miyares knows that. He’s a smart guy and a good lawyer. He knows that the office to which he was elected already has “full authority to do whatever is necessary or appropriate to enforce the election laws or prosecute violations thereof.” His prosecution of White had already demonstrated that better than his subsequent announcement of an election bunko squad ever could.
There’s less to his strike force than meets the eye. It has no separate budget. It will be composed primarily of staff who can juggle election investigations alongside other duties to which they are already assigned.
But, alas, it’s good politics – for Miyares, anyway. Not only does it stoke a GOP base that will likely be asked to choose between him and Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears in 2025 for the party’s gubernatorial nomination, but the unit stands to get a lot of fodder tossed its way soon because of an impending change in the partisan makeup of electoral boards in all 133 localities.
Among the spoils that go to the victor of gubernatorial elections is the right to have the new governor’s party dominate state and local electoral boards. Next year, those boards shift from Democratic majorities to GOP majorities. And in Miyares, they have an attorney general with a platoon poised to pounce on any perceived irregularities they feed him.
How better to contrive an argument for restoring the restrictive voting laws the GOP implemented while it dominated the General Assembly for most of the first two decades of the 21st century? Laws like the photo ID requirement and rigid constraints on early and absentee voting that made it hard for marginalized and disabled Virginians to vote were repealed after Democrats briefly won full control of the General Assembly in 2019. Republicans, who regained a slim House majority last year, advanced voting restriction bills in the 2021 legislative session, but they died in a Democratic Senate.
You’d hope that Miyares and his party could advance beyond one election in which Virginia (and the nation) repudiated the most noxious president in U.S. history without trying to immolate the nation’s imperfect yet solid election infrastructure in obsequious fealty to Trump’s delusions. Virginia proved to the country last November, just one year after it had resoundingly elected Democrats, that its system is not rigged against Republicans.
And nothing made the case better than Miyares’ own impressive victory, the most unexpected of them all.
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