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Youngkin’s top election official attended Heritage Foundation conference

Commissioner Susan J. Beals sitting
Crixell Matthews
VPM News File
Virginia Commissioner of Elections Susan Beals speaks at a 2022 meeting of the Board of Elections. Beals recently attended an elections conference hosted by the Heritage Foundation.

The event included panels like “Auditing Expertise,” “Mapping the Opposition: Funding Streams,” and “Election Integrity Updates from the States.”

Virginia Commissioner of Elections Susan Beals attended a conference in February sponsored by conservative groups aiming to tighten voting rules.

State taxpayers paid for Beals’ $188-a-night hotel stay for the two nights she attended the Heritage Foundation's Secretaries of State Conference, according to Department of Elections spokesperson Andrea Gaines, who responded to questions on behalf of Beals. She said Beals was already in Washington, D.C., for other commitments.

Beals was appointed to her post last year by Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin and has faced criticism from Democrats over her handling of elections. Last year, she came under fire for an IT glitch that temporarily left more than 200,000 voter registration records in limbo.

Separately, the department announced earlier this month that a staffer mistakenly sent the state voter file — complete with private information like social security numbers — to a group requesting a separate data set in March.

In an email, Gaines identified that group as the Fairfax County Republican Committee and said a representative of the group had signed an affidavit swearing they’d immediately deleted the file and reported the mistake to the department.

A confidential conference

The conference Beals attended was organized by the Heritage Foundation alongside the Public Interest Legal Foundation and the Honest Elections Project. It was attended by 13 GOP state-level election leaders, according to the Guardian’s reporting on the event. The newspaper also published emails where a top Heritage Foundation official urged attendees to keep their presence confidential.

These three groups differ in their exact stances on voting and election policies. But they each argue election administrators and lawmakers should focus special attention on ending voting fraud through new laws like mandatory photo IDs at the polls and early voting restrictions.

There is no evidence that fraud is pervasive in the U.S. or Virginia; the Heritage Foundation’s own non-exhaustive database notes two criminal convictions for voting-related fraud since 2019 in the commonwealth — one from a GOP staffer and another from a self-described "unabashed conservative.”

The conference included panels like “Auditing Expertise,” “Mapping the Opposition: Funding Streams,” and “Election Integrity Updates from the States,” according to an agenda published by the Guardian. Former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who went on to serve in the administration of former President Donald Trump, was listed as a speaker.

In an email, Gaines said Beals was already in Washington to meet with federal officials and attend the National Association of State Election Directors' winter conference (which was scheduled from Feb. 16 to 18), as well as a meeting of the board of the Electronic Registration Information Center on Sunday, Feb. 19.

But Beals arrived at the Grand Hyatt Washington several days before either event, on Tuesday, Feb. 14, according to a copy of her calendar obtained via public records request. The Heritage Foundation conference began that day and continued through Feb. 15. According to her calendar Beals also met with Jen Easterly, director of the federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, the morning of Feb. 15.

“The conference was an opportunity to meet with other state election officials and hear about legislation being considered in their states,” Gaines said.

Asked if Beals believed Virginia elections were hindered by fraud, Gaines said Beals “believes we have a dependable system in Virginia; she has faith in our elections officials and their commitment to their profession and their communities.”

Beals personally paid the Heritage Foundation $230.94 for meals she ate at the conference, according to a copy of a Feb. 14 check provided in VPM News’ public records request.

Breeding suspicion?

Several weeks after Beals attended the conference, a department staffer mistakenly sent a representative for the Fairfax County Republican Committee the state voter file. The incident was reported by a whistleblower to the Virginia Office of the Inspector General, according to a report the office prepared that VPM News obtained via public records request.

The elections department staffer accidentally sent the Fairfax Republicans a file that had previously been prepared for an unnamed U.S. District Court; the OSIG noted courts routinely make such requests and “utilize the data for jury pools.”

The recipient immediately reported they’d received a much more extensive file then the one they’d requested and promptly deleted it, according to the OSIG.

In a press release earlier this month, the department said it changed access to the data, re-trained employees and has increased restrictions on its data-sharing protocols.

Del. Candi Mundon King (D–Prince William), who serves on the House Privileges and Elections Committee, said the incident indicated Beals misplaced focus on the voter fraud “boogeyman.” She connected internal department problems with Youngkin’s moves slowing voting rights restoration for people who are re-entering society after incarceration.

“When it comes to voting rights, when it comes to access, the governor and Commissioner Beals have shown that they are not serious about keeping the access to the ballot that Virginians have,” Mundon King told VPM News. “And so I'm not sure that she can do the job.”

Heritage Foundation spokesperson Laura Falcon Pham didn’t respond to specific questions. Instead, she sent a statement attributed to Hans von Spakovsky, a lawyer who heads Heritage’s voting-related efforts. Von Spakovsky previously headed former President Donald Trump’s Commission on Election Integrity in 2017, which focused on Trump’s unfounded claims of millions of illegally cast ballots in 2016 presidential elections. It quietly disbanded without finding evidence for the claims.

“The Secretaries of State Conference is an educational summit intended to provide information on current issues in elections and ensure that our election process protects the right to vote for American citizens by making it easy to vote and hard to cheat,” von Spakovsky said.

But election officials’ attendance at the conference could undermine the goal of instilling trust in elections according to David Becker, director of the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation & Research.

“When either party isn't invited to a convening, that naturally might breed suspicion,” Becker said.

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