“I Voted” stickers are displayed at a Richmond polling place during the 2022 midterm elections. (Graham Moomaw/Virginia Mercury)
The Virginia Department of Elections says it has “streamlined” the process of removing dead voters from the rolls by allowing local registrars to use obituaries to confirm deaths and creating a form meant to make it easier for family members to notify election offices after a death.
In a news release Monday, the agency said it had also reviewed the way it receives death records from the Virginia Department of Health. After looking at records going back to 1960, the agency said it had found a total of 18,990 deceased voters who had not yet been removed from the rolls.
“As a result of these findings and process improvements, citizens can expect to see a significant number of names removed from Virginia’s voter rolls,” the agency’s release said.
In an interview, Elections Commissioner Susan Beals, an appointee of Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, said her agency discovered a computer coding issue while preparing to transition to a new voter system. The current system, she said, had trouble catching unattended deaths, or cases where someone dies at home without being tended to by a doctor. Such deaths increased during COVID-19 but can take longer to show up in state death records because officials have to take extra time to investigate the cause.
The release said some of the changes came in response to requests from local registrars. Wise County Registrar Allison Robbins, the president of the Voter Registrars Association of Virginia, said registrars previously had to wait for an official form of notification before they could remove someone they knew had died based on information in their own community.
“We often know who our friends and neighbors are,” Robbins said.
List maintenance — the election-world term for keeping voter rolls up to date and removing voters who have died, moved elsewhere or been disqualified — has been a major priority for Republicans who argue sloppy registration data can lead to abuse. Though the topic can often veer into conspiracy theories about dead people voting, keeping voter registration data as clean as possible has traditionally been a bipartisan goal.
If done correctly, list maintenance can decrease confusion and problems at the polls. But voting rights advocates often watch carefully to ensure list cleanup doesn’t lead to the removal of eligible voters.
Last year, the politically divided General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to require VDH to send the elections department a list of recently deceased Virginians on a weekly basis instead of once a month. Virginia also requires state officials to conduct annual list maintenance by checking state voter records against federal death data maintained by the U.S. Social Security Administration.
The elections department also said it had “introduced” a new way for registrars to check records of deaths in other states via the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems (NAPHSIS), a nonprofit organization representing vital records offices across the country. The organization maintains a multi-state database it bills as having “the most accurate death data in the nation.”
“It gives the registrars the ability to look up and see if there is a death record for that person that exists in another state,” Beals said. “This is a particularly big deal for the people who are on the border.”
Robbins, who oversees elections in a rural county that’s nearer to population centers in Tennessee and West Virginia than it is to major cities in Virginia, said the new data access will be particularly beneficial for her office.
“Here in Southwest Virginia and in other parts of the state, the major hospitals are located out of state. So we often see a good percentage of our citizens pass away out of state,” she said. “So this is certainly going to help.”
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