As early voting starts, Youngkin’s elections commissioner calls system ‘dependable’

‘I have faith in our election officials and their commitment to their profession’

By: - September 26, 2022 12:04 am

Virginia Elections Commissioner Susan Beals checks in at the Chesterfield County elections office on the first day of early voting. (Photo by Graham Moomaw/Virginia Mercury)

As a woman in a purple blazer lined up to cast a ballot on the first day of early voting in Chesterfield County, one election worker nudged another and said: “She’s the boss.”

It took less than 10 minutes for Susan Beals, Virginia’s new commissioner of elections, to vote early in Chesterfield, the Richmond-area suburb where she served as a local electoral board member before Gov. Glenn Youngkin appointed her to the state’s top election job. 

There were no problems as she showed her ID, had a ballot made in front of her by one of the on-demand ballot printers many cities and counties are adopting for early voting, filled it out and fed it into a scanner as one of the first few dozen midterm votes cast in her home county.

While a significant number of her fellow Republicans continue to stoke doubts about the 2020 election, Beals, a 47-year-old former GOP aide, said in an interview she’s confident in the election process she’s overseeing at the state level for the first time.

“We have a dependable system in Virginia,” said Beals. “We can always make process improvements, and that’s something that I’m committed to.”

Beals said “people are entitled to have questions” about the process, but the answers are readily available.

“Find somebody who knows the answer,” she said. “Seek out an election official and ask them how the process works. Because most of them would be very happy to tell you.”

Beals, who served on the Chesterfield electoral board for several years before Youngkin picked her in March to lead the state agency, has had other important business on her plate that doesn’t involve actual voting, like taking over an ongoing information technology project to replace the state’s voter system. She’s also been preparing an outreach campaign to inform voters about the impacts of redistricting, an initiative that will involve roughly 6 million voter notices that should hit mailboxes early this week.

But the start of the 45-day early voting window on Friday, in a year when Virginia will have at least two hotly contested congressional races on the ballot, will cast a new spotlight on how Youngkin’s administration will handle the work of running elections.

Beals praised the thousands of election officers across Virginia who are getting to work helping people vote, calling them “patriotic Americans” who are “committed to making democracy work.” Asked if she believes those sowing mistrust about elections are making that job harder, Beals said “there’s a lot of scrutiny of elections right now.”

“But everything I have seen from election officials is that they are conducting themselves professionally,” she said. “I have faith in our election officials and their commitment to their profession and their commitment to their communities.”

Asked how she feels about the “election integrity” unit Attorney General Jason Miyares recently announced, which has drawn backlash from Democrats who say it feeds into conspiracy theorizing about stolen elections, Beals characterized it as fairly routine.

“To me that’s a normal relationship that we have,” she said. “They provide advice. If there is something that needs to be investigated, our board will vote to turn it over to the AG and ask them to investigate it.”

Virginia Republicans failed to repeal or scale back voting reforms Democrats passed two years ago when they had full political control, meaning the 45-day early voting window and the law making photo IDs optional will still be in place for Virginia’s midterms. 

The major change to state election policy this year is same-day registration, a policy Democrats passed in 2020 with a delayed effective date of October 2022. The new policy allows people to continue to register and cast a provisional ballot after the regular voter registration period closes Oct. 17. 

Beals said she’s not encouraging potential voters to put things off to take advantage of that new law, because registering in advance remains the easiest voting experience. Anyone casting a provisional ballot won’t be feeding it into the scanners as other voters do, she said, because election officials have to take time to research whether the person is a valid voter or not.

“I would very much prefer that everyone who wants to vote in this election try to get registered before October 17,” Beals said. “Because we want you to vote a regular ballot.”

Youngkin talks elections in Texas

As early voting got underway, the man who hired Beals was taking a stage in Austin at the Texas Tribune Festival, where the topic of Republican election denialism came up as Youngkin sat for an interview at the high-profile political event.

David M. Drucker, a political correspondent with the Washington Examiner, asked Youngkin about his planned campaign stops for Republican candidates like Kari Lake, the GOP nominee for governor in Arizona who insists, falsely, that former President Donald Trump won in 2020. 

“You are comfortable supporting Republicans that have issues or dispute the outcome of the last election?” Drucker asked.

“I am comfortable supporting Republican candidates. And we don’t agree on everything,” Youngkin replied. “I have said that I firmly believe that Joe Biden was elected president.”

Closer to home, Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, who has spread 2020 conspiracy theories without producing evidence of widespread fraud in Virginia’s election, has called on Youngkin to suspend the use of all “voting computers” in Virginia and switch to hand-counting all ballots.

There’s been no sign the Youngkin administration is taking her suggestion seriously, and the state usually avoids making major changes just as an election is beginning.

Paper ballots are used throughout Virginia after the state discontinued the use of touch-screen voting machines in 2017 due to security concerns.

Beals, who once worked as an aide to Chase, called paper ballots “one of the most secure ways to vote” and indicated she had no problem with the state continuing to use scanners that are routinely tested for accuracy.

“It is a counting machine,” Beals said. “It is not a voting machine. It is a machine that counts ballots.”

As Beals waited for a coffee at a Starbucks near the Chesterfield voting office, she got a text message from her predecessor. Former elections commissioner Chris Piper, whom Youngkin chose not to keep in the job, wished her well as her first election got underway.

“You got this!” Piper said.

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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.