Campaign signs outside the election office in Prince William County, a closely watched battleground in the midterm contests. (Graham Moomaw/Virginia Mercury)
A Richmond-area printing company acknowledged it was partly responsible for errors that caused roughly 60,000 Virginians to get incorrect voter notices ahead of the Nov. 8 midterms.
Choice Printing Services, a vendor the Virginia Department of Elections and several other state agencies have used for years, was given the job of creating and sending the millions of notices recently mailed to eligible Virginia voters, according to state procurement records. The company is listed as a small, woman-owned business that’s done a variety of work for government customers, including printing bat guides for the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, maps for the Science Museum of Virginia and flu clinic posters for the Chesterfield Health District.
The election postcards were meant to inform people where to vote and what congressional and legislative districts they’re in after the 2021 redistricting process, but ended up causing more confusion for thousands of recipients in Northern Virginia and Southwest Virginia.
In a brief phone interview Tuesday, Lainee Biliunas, who co-owns Choice Printing, said problems on the company’s end were honest mistakes and had nothing to do with politics.
“It wasn’t like a conscious error where somebody manipulated information,” Biliunas said. “We’re very transparent. People make mistakes. Things happen. I do know that it was rectified right away because it was a serious problem.”
Biliunas directed the Virginia Mercury to other Choice Printing representatives who could explain the errors in more detail. But the company didn’t respond to repeated inquiries Wednesday seeking additional clarity.
The mixups in both regions arose from efforts to address earlier issues with the 6 million voter notices that were originally mailed, according to multiple people with knowledge of the situation.
In Southwest Virginia, notices were initially sent to residential addresses instead of mailing addresses, creating a problem for rural recipients who get their mail at P.O. boxes instead of having it delivered at home. As the state and the vendor tried to correct that issue, a printing problem caused erroneous information to be sent to more than 31,000 people.
In Northern Virginia, the problems arose after initial postcards were sent without information on town elections, and the postcards created to fix that problem were printed incorrectly.
In a written response this week to questions posed by a Democratic legislator, Elections Commissioner Susan Beals, a Youngkin appointee, offered a more detailed explanation for the roughly 31,100 incorrect notices sent to voters in seven towns in Fairfax and Prince William counties. The problem, Beals wrote, was that voting locations on that batch of postcards were “kept static on the print job” instead of changing to match each voter’s correct polling place.
“The general registrars of Fairfax County and Prince William County have sent corrected notices to these voters,” Beals wrote to Sen. Lionell Spruill Sr., D-Chesapeake, who chairs the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee. “The Department of Elections will reimburse these localities for their expenses.”
State purchasing records show Choice Printing has been paid more than $380,000 since July 1, most of it for work done on behalf of the elections department. The purchase orders hint at the complexity of the redistricting postcard project, indicating some notices were printed in English only while others, including more than 55,000 sent to diverse areas of Northern Virginia, were printed in multiple languages. The postcards also varied depending on whether the recipient was a registered voter or someone eligible to vote who was not yet on the rolls.
The state checked a sample of the postcards for accuracy, but the errors apparently went undetected until it was too late.
The General Assembly ordered the state elections department, as opposed to local election offices, to send the post-redistricting notices through a $2.2 million budget amendment approved earlier this year.
Incorrect voter mail isn’t an entirely new phenomenon in Virginia. In the summer of 2020, a progressive nonprofit group sent out 587,683 erroneous absentee ballot applications that told recipients to return them to the wrong election office, a mixup rooted in confusion over Virginia’s independent cities and counties. But unlike the problems this year, those mailings didn’t come from an official government source.
Spruill and other Democrats have been sharply critical of the string of troubles in Virginia’s first election cycle under Youngkin, who campaigned on “election integrity” and well-run government. In an Oct. 6 letter to Beals seeking an explanation for why roughly 107,000 electronic voter registration transactions from the Department of Motor Vehicles hadn’t been properly processed, Spruill called Virginia’s voting infrastructure “historically reliable.”
Technological problems with the state’s voter system, VERIS, have been well documented across multiple gubernatorial administrations. The system, which dates back to 2007, has long been criticized by local election officials as sluggish and unreliable, and officials have been working for years on plans to modernize it.
A state report released in 2018 said VERIS was “not sufficiently functional or reliable” and pointed specifically to inaccuracies that arose from trying to sync DMV transactions with the voter rolls.
That report followed a major crash of the voter system in 2016 right at the registration deadline, which led a federal judge to order the state to reopen the registration period to accommodate would-be voters who had been locked out in a presidential year. At the time, Republican lawmakers blamed former Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s administration for failing to foresee a surge in voter interest that overwhelmed the online system.
As the registration deadline approached in 2020, workers accidentally severed an underground cable in Chesterfield County that powered most state IT functions, knocking out the voter registration system and leading a judge to extend the deadline again.
Some advocacy groups have called for the state to take additional steps to address this year’s voter registration problems, but Beals told Spruill the problems processing registrations coming over from the DMV were caught quickly enough that all impacted voters will be able to cast a ballot.
In her letter responding to the senator, Beals said the data issue seemed to begin around May 18, when the Virginia Information Technologies Agency was performing server maintenance. When the server was restarted, the automated process of transferring DMV transactions into the voter system failed to restart with it. Election officials didn’t immediately notice the error, she said, because registrations were still coming through, even though the numbers seemed unusually low.
Beals said it wasn’t until Sept. 28 that her agency received a report about a specific voter’s registration that hadn’t been processed.
“Upon researching this particular voter, it was discovered that there was an issue between the computer code that receives the data from DMV and the computer code that presents the data to the VERIS application for processing,” Beals wrote. The coding problem “has not repeated since,” Beals said, and the elections agency added new “auditing code” so it can catch similar issues going forward.
“I am satisfied that Commissioner Beals is making headway in addressing these issues,” Spruill said Wednesday evening. “Having an election system and process that is open, fair and accessible to all our citizens is my utmost goal. I will continue to monitor the progress in resolving these problems.”
On Monday, the elections department announced it had awarded a long-awaited contract to replace VERIS, a project expected to cost $13.5 million to implement and $2.9 million per year for hosting, maintenance and support. The project has been in the works for years, and was previously expected to be completed in time for this year’s elections. Officials now say the new system will go live in early 2025.
Officials had hoped to have a more modern system in place in time to implement same-day voter registration, a policy change Democrats passed in 2020 that’s just taking effect this year. Under the new law, voters can still register any time after the Oct. 17 deadline up to Election Day, but they have to cast a provisional ballot that doesn’t immediately go into the scanning machines and is set aside for further verification of the voter’s status.
In her response to Spruill, Beals noted the elections department has been asked to implement numerous policy changes while handling redistricting and working with an aging IT system.
“We will make sure that the new system has proper auditing and logging throughout the application to allow for 24/7 visibility into the system’s operations to prevent the issues discussed above from reoccurring,” Beals wrote.
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