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State Report Calls 2020 Election Most Successful In Virginia's History

Two voters cast ballots in building
A new state report praised officials' handling of Virginia's election despite new rules, elevated tensions, and a pandemic. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

A new report from Virginia’s Department of Elections calls the 2020 election “the most safe, secure, and successful” vote in the history of the state.

The report also details shortcomings in Richmond’s election administration, where the state noted a litany of problems that included the discovery of 1,000 unprocessed absentee ballots during early voting.

The November election set a statewide record for turnout, with nearly 75% of registered voters casting a ballot. The pandemic and a loosening of absentee voting laws also led to a surge in early voting, with nearly 60% of Virginia voters casting ballots before Election Day. About a third of that group cast ballots by mail, with the rest voting early in person.

The high turnout mirrors national trends. But Commissioner of Elections Chris Piper said a newly extended, 45-day no-excuse absentee voting period passed last year by Democrats in the General Assembly played a major role. Other changes, like ballot drop-boxes and prepaid postage for mail-in ballots, also figured into the growth.

“We have seen that the process worked,” Piper said. “And again, with the high turnout, I feel confident about where we are.”

Piper said he knew of no instances of voter fraud. But the department’s website logged 137 complaints about the issue -- over six times more than the last presidential election. Piper said election officials needed to do a better job educating people on the intricacies of the voting process.

“I would say nine times, probably 9.9 times out of 10, the issue’s easily explained,” Piper said. “It's usually just a misunderstanding of how the process works.”

Problems in Richmond

The state did note problems with election administration in several localities, including Richmond. The city’s Board of Elections removed Registrar Kirk Showalter from her post last week over concerns about the way she handled elections. 

The report noted that Richmond election officials struggled to keep up with the volume of absentee ballot applications and process them once they came in. 

“At one point, a box of over 1,000 voted ballots was discovered that had not been properly processed,” the report says.

Showalter faced criticism for her delayed response to state open records laws and her handling of a COVID outbreak in her office. She also faced accusations of racism toward election workers. 

Jim Nachman, chair of Richmond’s Board of Elections, declined to delve into the details of the discovered ballots, citing the possibility of litigation from Showalter. 

“There's nothing more than I would like to tell you exactly everything that happened, and why it happened,” Nachman said. “But I can't do it at this time.”

VPM reached out to Showalter’s attorneys for comment but have not heard back. She previously called the allegations against her “either fabrications or distortions.”

The Department of Elections also said it was “repeatedly misled” by the registrar in New Kent County, Karen Bartlett. Early in-person voters there were told they had to put their ballots in envelopes rather than sticking them directly in scanners. The report says Bartlett offered several explanations for the issue before they realized it was a “ruse.” 

“The general registrar never intended to allow voters to cast their ballots on the voting machine,” the report said. 

In an email to VPM, Bartlett denied the accusations. She said she was fully transparent with the state about snafus that prevented the county from properly collecting ballots, which she said included new voting machines and a COVID outbreak, and even asked for their help. 

Piper declined to comment. He said Bartlett and other registrars had been invited to speak at the state Board of Elections’ review of its findings on Feb. 23.

Changes to Voting Laws

The General Assembly is considering a few changes to election law. One bill from Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg (D-Henrico) would require registrars to begin processing absentee ballots before polls close, to speed up the process.

“My bill really focuses on that piece, which is voters who are just kind of casual observers of the news, turning on their TV, and being able to see the votes coming in and not having to wait until 11 or 12 o'clock at night,” VanValkenburg said.

His bill would also make ballot drop-boxes permanent. It passed the House without any Republican support.

Another bill from Sen. David Suetterlein (R-Roanoke County) earned bipartisan support. It would require localities to report absentee votes by precinct rather than dumping them in one “central absentee” precinct. In a Senate panel last week, Suetterlein said the bill would help answer questions he heard from some voters -- “great folks, who aren't the folks that get into conspiracy theories” -- confused over discrepancies between precinct and county-level results. Democrats agreed the change would help.

Last month, three Republican delegates penned a letter to former Vice President Mike Pence asking him to delay certification of Virginia's presidential electors. They repeated unsubstantiated claims that Democrats’ changes to voting laws paved the way for large-scale fraud. The lawmakers were later stripped of committee assignments by Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn. 

Other Republicans argued last year’s changes to voting laws eroded trust in Virginia’s elections even if they didn’t lead to fraud. VanValkenburg dismissed those claims.

“The reason people think there's fraud is because Republicans told them there was fraud,” he said. “They said it over and over and over and it was coming from their leader, the president of the United States.”

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