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Youngkin’s top elections official accepts responsibility for errors

The entrance to the Iron Bridge polling location in Chesterfield County
Crixell Matthews
Virginia election officials had issues with more than 200,000 mailings sent to voters. In attempting to correct the errors, officials then sent mailings that contained incorrect information on where to vote. (File photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Virginia Commissioner of Elections Susan Beals said this week she accepts responsibility for a series of mistakes related to voter registration and incorrect mailings sent to voters, the full scope of which have not been previously reported.

The Virginia Department of Elections sent more than 175,000 mailings to people’s home addresses, rather than PO Boxes, and an additional 31,000 were missing key address details. In both cases, the state followed up with a second round of mailers, some of which contained incorrect information on where to vote. In an unrelated issue, an IT glitch caused 107,000 voter registration files submitted to the Department of Motor Vehicles to sit in limbo over the summer.

“I absolutely take responsibility for the mistakes,” said Beals, a former local elections official and GOP staffer. “And I apologize to those voters who were impacted and to the registrars who've had a great amount of extra work thrust on them as a result of this.”

In an interview with VPM News, Beals said the mistakes had all been fixed. Corrected mailings were sent out this month, and the commissioner said local registrars quickly processed all of the voter files they received after the department caught the mistake in late September.

Still, she encouraged voters to double-check their voting location online or by calling (804) 864-8901, ext. 0, before heading to the polls.

Separately, a software error at the DMV caused about 3,500 voters to receive letters telling them they were ineligible to vote. A spokesperson for the DMV said the error was fixed in June and voters’ data was not affected.

Beals’ apology marked a different tone from Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who appointed her to the position in March and emphasized the need for “election integrity” during his campaign.

Speaking to VPM News earlier this month, the Republican suggested the previous Democratic administration was responsible for the voter registration error. Youngkin said former Gov. Ralph Northam’s team should have moved faster to replace VERIS, the state’s IT system, which he blamed for the error.

But Beals said the error wasn't caused by VERIS. Instead the problem was the result of issues with software that wasn’t properly inputting data received by the DMV into VERIS.

Some Democratic lawmakers have criticized the communication surrounding the errors and Youngkin’s decision to blame the Northam administration. Del. Marcus Simon (D-Fairfax), the former chair of the House of Delegates’ election committee, said the mistakes could be traced back to Youngkin’s decision to replace former elections commissioner Chris Piper.

“It's great of Susan to fall on her sword on behalf of the administration,” Simon said. “I think the buck stops with the governor and his decision to replace the seasoned experienced professional staff there with his own folks, for the sake of having his own folks.”

Youngkin’s spokesperson, Macaulay Porter, argued the governor was correct to categorize the voter registration issue as a problem with VERIS because the IT system is “interconnected” with the software where the glitch occured.

“Commissioner Beals is taking responsibility because as the head of the agency she understands that it is her responsibility to fix the mistakes with the mailings no matter how they occurred,” Porter said. “She is also taking responsibility for fixing the problems associated with VERIS, which are long-standing and well-documented.

Despite the errors, statewide data indicated record-setting early voting, driven in part by 45-day, no-excuse absentee voting rules passed largely by Democrats in the state legislature in 2020. About 510,000 people have already cast their ballots through Thursday, up 48% from overall early voting in the 2018 midterm elections, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

Mailing mistakes

When a Virginian registers to vote or changes their registration -- or their district or polling location changes -- they receive a notification through the mail confirming a voting location. This year, the department of elections mistakenly sent 176,000 of those cards to people’s listed residence, rather than the P.O. Box they’d specified as their mailing address. Some of those, particularly for people in rural areas, were returned to registrars because the voter didn’t have a mailbox, Beals said.

The department sent out a second round of mailings to those affected. Most were distributed successfully, but 30,000 people in Southwest Virginia received information about the wrong polling location because of an error made by the company that printed the mailers. The department sent out a third mailing to that group that Beals said should have begun hitting mailboxes earlier this week. She said they would no longer use that printer as a vendor.

A separate issue affected 31,000 mailers sent to several towns in Northern Virginia. The cards didn’t include the town code, meaning they had to be re-sent with that information included. But on the second attempt, the department mistakenly assigned all 31,000 voters to the same precinct in Fairfax. A third round of mailers went out late last week to correct the issue.

Not a U.S. citizen

In an unrelated snafu, local registrars sent about 3,500 people letters with incorrect information about their voting status because of a software programming error at the DMV.

“You are ineligible to vote because you did not declare yourself a United States citizen,” the letter said, advising the voters they could challenge the declaration by paying $10 to file an appeal at their localities’ circuit court within 10 days.

In fact, those people had left the question blank when they’d updated their voting address on DMV’s website between March 3 and June 7, according to DMV spokesperson Pam Goheen.

Local registrars sent those affected by the mistake a follow-up letter noting that their voter registration status had not changed, according to Goheen. She stressed that the software had been fixed, and said no one’s voting status was disrupted and apologized to those who were inconvenienced.

In a June 15 email obtained by VPM News in a public-records request, Linda Ford, acting commissioner of the DMV, apologized for not communicating with the department about the error and asked Beals to call her.

“I'm sure you're busy preparing for Governor Youngkin's visit, and I hope everything goes well for you today,” Ford said. “I know the last thing you needed to deal with this week was the outage issue at DMV, and I apologize we neglected to contact ELECT sooner.”

The department alerted local registrars about the error on June 23, according to the emails. 

A new IT system

Public records obtained by VPM News show the department of elections received more than a dozen support tickets from local registrars in late May regarding a problem with data they generally receive daily from the DMV. Several reported that their “hoppers,” where they receive data from the DMV like a change in address or newly registered voter, were empty or unusually low.

In response to the tickets, department staff eventually acknowledged a problem and later indicated they’d fixed it. But the tickets kept coming.

On May 25, for example, Kayla Deel, director of elections in Dickenson County, noted a sharp drop-off in files received from the DMV. “That is very very odd for us to go this long without an application or a duplicate,” Deel wrote on a ticket.

In a response the same day, Ronald Jackson with the department of elections suggested everything was fine.

“This may be by chance,” he wrote. “We have had issues with the DMV Hopper recently but it appears all issues have been resolved.” A second department staffer confirmed that was the case and closed the ticket.

Beals said the department typically receives 180 support tickets per month. The department believed the problem was fixed becaused many voter registration files were still successfully coming through the DMV.

Tickets about the problem continued to trickle in throughout the summer. On a Sept. 15 ticket, Loudoun County registrar Judy Brown noted they’d received a call from a family who said they’d registered at the DMV in June. Brown said she had never received their registration.

“This appears to be a serious problem that needs to be addressed,” Brown said. “We are getting calls on a regular basis. We are still not getting a lot of applications from the DMV which is unusual for Loudoun County.”

Beals said the department began to investigate the issue and was able to trace the voter’s record through the system. On Sept. 30, they alerted local registrars to the problem, according to the emails.

Beals said the department has since implemented an auditible log that would alert them if the issue surfaced again.

Replacing VERIS remains a priority for the commissioner, who on Monday announced the Virginia Department of Elections had signed a contract with the Canton Group, a software company based in Baltimore, to replace it. The system will be live in February 2025, if all goes according to plan.

Registrars have long warned the current system is outdated, and a 2018 independent state audit backed them up, describing VERIS as “not sufficiently functional or reliable.” Northam included funding to replace the system in his budgets in 2020 and 2021. Procurement moved slowly; the election commissioner at the time, Chris Piper, said he wanted to be sure they got it right. Beals said she assigned a staffer to focus entirely on negotiating a contract.

“It's based on 2005 technology,” Beals said about VERIS. “So, we are very hopeful that a lot of these types of issues that we experienced will be rectified with the new system.”

Simon called on the department to conduct an audit based on the mistakes this year. He argued the errors were part of a pattern.

“When they repeat themselves like that, and they cascade, it's hard not to look at the folks in charge and wonder if they're really competent to do the job they've been asked to do,” Simon said.

Correction: This story has been updated to clarify the circumstances when the department of elections mails information about individuals' polling locations. VPM News regrets the error.

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