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Virginia Republicans At Odds Over False Voter Fraud Claims

A Richmond voter receives a ballot from woman behind screen
A Richmond voter receives a ballot from a poll worker. (Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

The fundraising email sent by Republican Party of Virginia on Tuesday was dire: party chair Rich Anderson warned that the presidential election was “under attack by the corrupt Democrats,” who were out to “steal this election.” It followed a Tweet last week from Anderson saying it was “time to figuratively burn down” the Virginia Board of Elections and Department of Elections.

That rhetoric came as a surprise to John O’Bannon, who serves as the lone Republican on the three-person Board and whom Anderson described as a “buddy” from their days serving in the House of Delegates.

“I appreciate Rich's constructive criticism,” O'Bannon said in an interview. “Nobody's called me to share that with me. But I think in general, the elections have been fair in Virginia.”

Deputy Commissioner of Elections Jessica Bowman said in a statement that the state was “not aware of any substantiated allegations of widespread voter fraud in Virginia.” Anderson echoed that message in an interview, distancing himself from the suggestion of foul play.

“I have not seen what I would call widespread fraud,” Anderson said. “In Virginia, I'm not lying awake at night and worrying about it.”

Anderson also defended his Twitter comments on the Board of Elections as “simply a word picture” meant to illustrate his frustration with what he described as inconsistent and underfunded election administration. A 2018 nonpartisan audit found that the department of elections “does not adequately focus on overseeing” some local functions, though state officials did not frame the problems in Anderson's stark language. 

The GOP rhetoric on fraud tapped into false narratives perpetrated by President Donald Trump and, increasingly, his allies in Virginia. Two Republican Congressional candidates -- Leon Benjamin and Manga Anantatmula -- have claimed fraud and declined to concede despite unofficial results showing them down by over twenty and forty percent, respectively.

“Mail-in ballots fraud + software glitch... anything is possible,” wrote Anantatmula, who trails Rep. Gerry Connely (D-11th) by nearly 170,000 votes, in a Facebook post Tuesday.

Benjamin equated a late election-evening absentee ballot that wiped out a brief lead over Rep. Donald McEachin (D-4th) as proof of malfeasance in a fundraising email sent Wednesday.

“After dominating the vote last night with most votes counted, the Democrats ‘found’ tens of thousands of votes!” Benjamin wrote.

O'Bannon said the swing in vote totals was not surprising given that absentee ballots heavily favored by Democrats were often counted last.

“It played out pretty much as expected,” he said. “The red folks were way ahead on election night for the in person voting. And when those other votes came in, it went back the other way.”

A third Virginia Republican Congressional hopeful, Del. Nick Freitas (R-Culpeper) vowed in a Facebook post Thursday to continue to investigate “many irregularities” that he did not name in the face of a roughly two percent lead by Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-7th), whom the Associated Press declared the winner of the race. Still, Freitas acknowledged that “the outcome of the election will probably not change here in the 7th.”

Virginia Republicans have reacted to Joe Biden’s national election win with a mix of acceptance, denial, and silence.

A few Republicans -- Senate candidate Daniel Gade, outgoing Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-5th), and former Rep. Barbara Comstock -- have acknowledged Biden’s win. 

Others have hedged. House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) and Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-9th) posted links to Trump’s “Official Election Defense Fund” from their Facebook pages; Reuters reported donations under $8,000 won't go toward Trump's legal fees. Del. Ronnie Campbell (R-Rockbridge) posted a link to a petition that has the goal of having “the entire election recounted or re voted with better overwatch of how votes are received and counted.” Del. Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights), a former civics teacher and likely gubernatorial candidate, said on Twitter that the U.S. election system was “resilient” and that “allegations of fraud” should be investigated. 

Neither Cox nor any of the other Republicans who had cast doubt on Biden’s win agreed to an interview. Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment (R-James City), who has not commented on the results, also did not respond to a request for an interview.

Few have gone as far as provocateur Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Midlothian), who held a “Stop the Steal” rally alongside Benjamin outside the Department of Elections on Saturday. Chase claimed Democrats were out to “steal this election from President Trump,” according to the Virginia Mercury. Authorities in Philadelphia arrested two of her supporters on weapons charges outside a vote counting center in Philadelphia.

Anne Meng, an associate professor in politics at the University of Virginia who studies authoritarianism, said Republicans were making “very authoritarian and anti-Democratic statements.”

Still, she said, authoritarian rhetoric and actions were not new in the U.S. That was especially true in the South, which she said political scholars held up as an example of “subnational authoritarianism” because of violently anti-Black policies that persisted until the 1960s.

“We really only became a democracy about 55 years ago,” Meng said. “The kind of presence of authoritarian elements in American politics is concerning, but it is not new.”

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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