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Youngkin blames voter registration glitch on Northam administration

Youngkin speaks outside the capitol.
Former Commissioner of Elections Chris Piper and several Democratic lawmakers disputed Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s account of the issue, arguing his administration had the power to replace the system themselves and waited months to act on a drop-off in voter registrations. (File photo: Ben Paviour/VPM News)

A recent backup in voter registration data, affecting an estimated 40,000 voters, was caused by Virginia’s aging election IT system, Gov. Glenn Youngkin said Wednesday. 

Youngkin blamed former Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration for not moving faster to replace the system, known as VERIS. But former Commissioner of Elections Chris Piper and several Democratic lawmakers disputed Youngkin’s account, arguing his administration had the power to replace the system themselves and waited months to act on a drop-off in voter registrations.

The technical glitch meant 107,000 voter records sat in limbo, causing a noticeable drop in voter registration since May, according to an analysis from the Virginia Public Access Project. Those voter files — which include new registrations and changes of address — have now been sent to local registrars for processing. VPAP estimated about 40,000 people had their registrations delayed.

The group included U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, who discovered the issue while attempting to vote early after moving to downtown Richmond, he told reporters on Thursday. Kaine said the issue had been resolved and he cast his ballot the same day. 

State officials have been vague about what exactly caused the problem, and a spokesperson for the department of elections did not respond to a series of questions posed by VPM News. 

Speaking to reporters after a ribbon-cutting in Henrico County on Wednesday, however, Youngkin attributed the error to VERIS, an election IT system that a 2018 state audit deemed “not sufficiently functional or reliable.” 

“The short answer is we inherited a system from the previous administration that was supposed to be decommissioned and replaced and wasn't,” Youngkin said. “There were things that were broken in the system that unfortunately weren't all caught.”

The Virginia Department of Elections originally set out last year to purchase a new IT system that would run alongside VERIS for the November 2022 elections. But the process was delayed. Piper, who served as commissioner of elections under Northam and for a few months under Youngkin, told the Washington Post in April that the department wanted to be sure it had the best vendor.

In a statement to VPM News, Piper stressed that he has a “great deal of faith” in the current commissioner, Susan Beals, and state and local election officials. But Piper said the Northam administration “did not experience anything close to the same kind of failure in delivering voter registrations as was seen last week.” And he questioned why the administration took months to respond to a sharp drop-off in voter registrations that began in June.

“​​For the Governor to disparage the work of the previous administration to score political points and deflect from the responsibility of his own administration for this error is truly troubling, and I refuse to take it lying down,” Piper said.

Del. Mark Sickles (D-Fairfax), a longtime member of the House of Delegates’ elections committee, criticized Youngkin for firing “seasoned, respected, non-partisan ELECT director in the middle of this generational, complicated procurement.”

“We’re ten months in, he’s got the money, at some point he needs to stop blaming others and take responsibility,” Sickles said in a text message.

Piper and Sickles noted it was Northam and a Democratic-led legislature that secured funding to replace VERIS in 2020 and 2021.

David Bjerke, the registrar in Falls Church, said registrars began discussing the issue on a Sept. 27 email thread, and the department of elections stepped in to respond on Sept. 30. He said the DMV transfers data to local elections offices, where it appears in a part of VERIS known as “the hopper.”

Local election officials take information from the hopper to make changes on their own voter rolls. In this case, Bjerke said, registrars started hearing from voters who said they’d registered at the DMV, but whose data did not appear in the hopper. Once the data did appear, Bjerke said registrars received several months of data at once. 

Bjerke said he wasn’t sure of the exact cause of the issue but said VERIS is “in dire need of replacing.”

Youngkin said the administration was working “aggressively” to set up a new IT system next year.

“It's not something that we want to see happen, but boy, am I glad that we were able to address the situation quickly,” Youngkin said.

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