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Distrust in elections process has consequences at the polls, researcher says

A sign shows the hours for voting on election day in VIrginia, 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Crixell Matthews
Election Day is upcoming on Nov. 8, though people can already vote early at their general registrar's office. (File photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

The U.S. Justice Department this week appointed officials to respond to midterm election complaints in Virginia. It’s part of the DOJ’s Election Day Program, designed to combat voter fraud, voting rights concerns, threats of violence to election officials and more.

Those officials could have their work cut out for them this election, according to Wendy Weiser, of the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice. She said the group has been watching how the election-denial movement is creating risk at the polls. There’s been a spike in spending on races in which candidates contest President Joe Biden’s win in the 2020 election, she said, as well as on races opposing election deniers. And, she noted, more than half of Americans will have an election denier on their ballot this November.  

“We think that aggrieved candidates can and should use all of the procedures available to them under the law to contest and review election outcomes. But we need to do a lot to reinforce the norm of accepting the results of a valid election,” Weiser said. 

The Brennan Center is also noticing efforts to infiltrate election administration functions, which Weiser said is increasingly sowing distrust in election infrastructure.  

“Since the 2020 election, there have been at least 17 recorded incidents where conspiracy theorists have gained or attempted to gain access to voting equipment that has resulted in some security breaches,” she said, discussing national statistics. "In a number of jurisdictions, equipment has had to be decommissioned and new equipment purchased.” 

In September, a Michigan poll worker was charged with tampering with an election computer. 

There are also cases of hyper-partisan recruitment of poll workers, though poll workers are traditionally nonpartisan positions.  

“Our democracy relies on that kind of civic engagement from people across the political spectrum, regardless of their faith in the election process,” Weiser said. “But there is a concern that not just individuals who are worried about the integrity of the election, but individuals who are actively promoting falsehoods, or who might even seek to undermine or sabotage elections are also being recruited.” 

In Virginia, poll workers — called election officials — are paid by local registrars to conduct elections and assist voters at a polling place on Election Day. Poll watchers, on the other hand are appointed by political parties or candidates. Their role is limited to observing the election’s proceedings.  

Gov. Glenn Youngkin spoke at a rally this week where he urged Republicans to become poll watchers.  

“It’s time to win this election, and we know what we have to do,” he said. “Folks, last year, we had 5,000 volunteers at the polls. Five-thousand poll watchers, election observers handing out sample ballots. You must sign up to work the polls.” 

Richmond General Registrar Keith Balmer said the climate of distrust is pronounced.  

“There is, unfortunately, people who just don’t have the trust that they should have in the job in which local election officials and state officials are doing,” he said. 

Balmer said that can lead to simple clerical errors being viewed as nefarious, so he’s working harder than ever to combat that.  

“Anything that I feel may cause any sort of confusion amongst my voters, I’m out there talking to the media. I’m posting information on our social media pages, posting on our website, and sending out press releases,” he said. “I think that’s the way I push back on the climate that we’re in right now.” 

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.