Election 2016

“I voted,” stickers are given to voters at Main Branch — Richmond Public Library polling place in Richmond on Tuesday, November 8, 2016.

A legislative review of Virginia’s Department of Elections has found that the agency had an “environment of open support for one party over the other” under leadership appointed by then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat.

Staff from the General Assembly’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission presented their findings Monday in a 75-page report that pointed to the perception of political bias and a faulty IT system as two key issues state lawmakers may want to address.

Jamie Bitz, a chief legislative analyst for JLARC, said interviews with local voter registrars and state elections staffers showed there was “a perception of political bias that was reflected in decisions about certain policies and certain agency operations.”

In an interview after the meeting, Bitz said JLARC was told that former agency leaders directed staff to help Democratic groups avoid campaign finance laws and rules that require political groups to put their names on ads.

“We heard of one example where the previous deputy commissioner at the agency very openly stated to a number of people, including to one high-level elections official in Virginia, that one of her key responsibilities was to help Hillary Clinton be elected president,” Bitz said.

Bitz said JLARC found no evidence that agency staff tried to tilt any election results, but Republicans seized on the finding as confirming their suspicions about how the Elections Department was run during the McAuliffe era.

House of Delegates Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, called the appearance of political bias “devastating.”

“If there’s any group that has to have integrity, if there’s any group that has to be nonbiased, it’s got to be this group,” Cox said.

Under state law, the elections commissioner and two other high-level positions in the agency are filled by the governor, a system JLARC said makes the agency susceptible to political influence and leadership turnover every four years.

Del. Steve Landes, R-Augusta, said politics within the Elections Department may not be an entirely new phenomenon.

“It’s probably happened on both sides of the aisle depending on who the governor was,” Landes said.

In its report, JLARC said the General Assembly could consider eliminating the two other appointed positions — a chief deputy commissioner and confidential policy adviser — and create a new director of operations position that would not be subject to the whims of the governor’s office.

Though Gov. Ralph Northam retained several administration officials McAuliffe hired, Northam did not reappoint Elections Commissioner Edgardo Cortés.

In January, Northam appointed Chris Piper, a former executive director of the Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council and deputy director of the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, to run the agency, which oversees elections in conjunction with local voter registrars.

The review found agency leadership has improved since Piper took over. When lawmakers asked about the allegation of past political bias, Piper said agency culture flows from the top.

“If the staff sees the leadership acting in a nonpartisan manner and doing the job that’s required of us to ensure a fair, accurate and uniform election, then they tend to follow that and believe in that,” Piper said.

In an email, Cortés said he was proud of what the agency accomplished under his tenure, saying the department made it “easier for eligible Virginians to participate in our democracy,” equipped local election officials and had “a great working relationship with both state political parties.”

“I’m glad to see that JLARC has confirmed the need for additional resources and legislative changes to allow the department to fulfill its expansive mission to promote and support accurate, fair, open and secure elections for the citizens of the commonwealth,” Cortés said.

Cortés led the agency during McAuliffe’s executive action to restore voting rights to more than 200,000 people with felony convictions, a move McAuliffe said rectified a lifetime disenfranchisement policy that had a disproportionate impact on African-Americans.

The JLARC report suggested several other actions lawmakers could take to address recent election-related problems.

The information system state and local officials use to maintain the list of Virginia’s 5.5 million registered voters is “not sufficiently functional or reliable,” the report found, confirming registrars’ long-standing complaints about system slowdowns and crashes. The VERIS system crashed in October 2016 right before the deadline to register to vote in the presidential election, which led a federal court to order Virginia to reopen voter registration.

The General Assembly has already dedicated $2 million to rebuilding the VERIS system, but the JLARC report said the state may want to revisit that decision or explore the possibility of a full system replacement.

Despite the technology issues, the state’s voter rolls are “mostly accurate,” the JLARC report said. Even though there have been some examples of voter fraud, JLARC staff said they found no “verifiable evidence” of widespread voter fraud.

“Because the vast majority of elections in Virginia are won by relatively large margins of victory, for most races there would have to be a substantial number of instances of single-ballot voter fraud to result in the wrong person being elected to office,” the report says.

Last year, election officials discovered that hundreds of voters had been assigned to the wrong House district in the Fredericksburg area, casting a cloud over a close race there. The JLARC report recommended legislation to require the Elections Department to conduct periodic checks to make sure voters are in the right district and take action to ensure localities and the state agree on local boundary lines.

Piper said the Elections Department will take the JLARC recommendations seriously. In comments to the committee, Piper defended his agency, saying the department admirably fulfills its mission despite the complex environment in which it operates.

“We are a small agency with a huge mandate,” Piper said. “And we take our responsibility for ensuring the sacred right of the vote seriously.”

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(21) comments

Tom Terrific

Republicans will be happy to hear that the VERIS system has yet to be updated due to republican led cuts in the budget. Best not let those nasty democrats register! See http://www.dailypress.com/news/politics/dp-nws-veris-budget-20170209-story,amp.html

Drake D Butler

"Bitz said JLARC found no evidence that agency staff tried to tilt any election results"

Republicans love their rumor and heresay… they just don't get too hung up on the facts.

Meanwhile.. when it comes to blatant election fraud...

"An Iowa woman charged with voting twice for Donald Trump last fall has pleaded guilty to election misconduct."

Fred Demey

Nobody should be surprised that the election system, run by partisan political hacks, is biased toward letting Democrats slide, while holding Republicans to a higher standard. Voter fraud is rampant here in Virginia, and across America, and the vast majority of it is directed at getting Democrats elected, and this is just the very tip of the iceberg. Hillary Clinton's entire campaign was biased by the various State elections boards and of course the media, and she STILL lost to President Trump, and this is the foundation for the entire "Russian Collusion" scam.

Drake D Butler

" Voter fraud is rampant here in Virginia, and across America"

Fake news Fred at it again. Lying without a shred of proof to back him up. Rump even established and election fraud commission with Pence at it's head that finally disbanded when it found absolutely nothing and turned out to be a pure waste of time and taxpayer money.

Fred Demey

Drake, you again demonstrate that you are ignorant of the facts, and If I say it, I can back it up, something you CAN'T do with your statements. Drake, don't EVER doubt my comments, people a lot more informed than you have, and they like you, ended up with egg all over their faces.

http://www.nbc12.com/story/19237542/10000-dead-found-on-virginias-voter-rolls/

https://www.nationalreview.com/2017/03/terry-mcauliffe-voter-fraud-virginia/

http://www.whsv.com/content/news/Charges-filed-in-Harrisonburg-voter-fraud-case-427300193.html

RJ STRAFFORD

Did you not see what Del. Landes, a conservative Republican said?

Del. Steve Landes, R-Weyers Cave, said politics within the elections department may not be an entirely new phenomenon. "It's probably happened on both sides of the aisle depending on who the governor was," Landes said.

Of course not, and you will probably call him a RINO.

You screech about "rampant" voter fraud in Virginia and across America, but you give no evidence.

You say Clinton's "entire campaign was biased by the various state elections boards," but you give no evidence.

And you say that her loss "is the foundation for the entire 'Russian collusion' scam."

Yours are the rantings of a paranoid zealot whose bias is so extreme that it blinds him to facts. You must be an acolyte of Rudy ("Truth isn't truth") Giuliani.

You lie as often as does Trump, and with the same zero believability factor.

MR.LARRY EAVEY

This is an example of the new normal of government operations run by political appointee hacks with no idea of what’s ethical.

B LEVIN

hardly new.

behavior of employees is about leadership from the top. in this case, mcauliffe.

TRACY PETERS

"Win at any cost" is the banner of the New Socialist Party of Virginia and the Nation. But …. they do need help since they now know that lying Presidentially does not bring in the votes like it once did …. Nothing if free and folks know that by now. Period.

KATHLEEN NICKELE

Win at any costs? That has been trademarked by the GOP. As we learned in 2016, no one does dishonest campaigns better. I've never heard of the New Socialist Party of Virginia, I wonder if it is anything like the new Fascist Party of Virginia. I understand that David Brat is running under the Koch party. I didn't know that the Koch's had a facility in Brat's district. It is true that, nothing is free, please tell that to the GOP and their donors. Since you are so concerned by 'earning' ones compensation, maybe you can tell us why the GOP thinks that wage earners should accept pay cuts (inflation - salary increase) each year so that executives and hedge funds can have over 300% increases. Be honest, just who do you think is getting something for nothing.

Drake D Butler

"Lying presidentially" sure brought in the votes for Rump among the low-education voters he says he loves. I guess we can see why.

Here's a SHORT list of Rump's fact-checked lies... only ONE year into his presidency. Thanks for the opportunity to air them again.
"I never said Russia did not meddle in the election."

"This Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story. It's an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should've won."

"Many countries (in NATO) owe us a tremendous amount of money for many years back, where they’re delinquent, as far as I’m concerned, because the United States has had to pay for them."

Says James Clapper said "that the FBI was spying on (Trump's) campaign."

Says of the diversity visa lottery program, "they give us their worst people, they put them in a bin," and "the worst of the worst" are selected.

A "horrible law" requires that children be separated from their parents "once they cross the Border into the U.S."

"Watch those GDP numbers. We started off at a very low number, and right now we hit a 3.2 (percent). Nobody thought that was possible."

"In seven years that (nuclear) deal will have expired, and Iran is free to go ahead and create nuclear weapons."

"For years, they have not been able to get tax cuts -- many, many years, since Reagan."

There was "serious voter fraud" in Virginia.

The immigration visa lottery "randomly hands out green cards without any regard for skill, merit, or the safety of American people."

Says "Nancy Pelosi came out in favor of MS-13."

"Crime in Germany is way up."

"The European Union … they send us Mercedes, they send us -- by the millions -- the BMWs -- cars by the millions."

"You take Pulse nightclub. If you had one person in that room that could carry a gun and knew how to use it, it wouldn’t have happened, or certainly to the extent that it did."

Chicago is "the city with the strongest gun laws in our nation."

"I have watched ICE liberate towns from the grasp of MS-13."

"China will be allowed to build hundreds of additional coal plants. So we can’t build the plants, but they can, according to this (Paris) agreement."

Philadelphia Eagles players stayed "in the Locker Room for the playing of our our National Anthem" or were "kneeling."

"Inner-city crime is reaching record levels."

"It’s possible that non-citizen voters were responsible for Obama’s 2008 victory in North Carolina."

White nationalist protesters in Charlottesville "had a permit. The other group didn’t have a permit."

"We got $6 billion for opioid and getting rid of that scourge that’s taking over our country. And the numbers are way down."

Deals struck on his first foreign trip as president made and saved "millions of jobs."

Before the presidential campaign, "I didn't know Steve (Bannon)."

Says he won the second debate with Hillary Clinton "in a landslide" in "every poll."

"My first order as president was to renovate and modernize our nuclear arsenal. It is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before."

"My opponent has no child care plan."

Terrorism and terrorist attacks in the United States and Europe have "gotten to a point where it's not even being reported."

Says Hillary Clinton "wants to let people just pour in. You could have 650 million people pour in and we do nothing about it. Think of it. That’s what could happen. You triple the size of our country in one week."

Speaking of immigration cases, says, "We have thousands of judges."

Sen. Kamala Harris is "supporting the animals of MS-13."

Untaxed corporate earnings used to be "$2.5 trillion … I guess it’s $5 trillion now. Whatever it is, it’s a lot more. So we have anywhere from 4 (trillion) to 5 or even more trillions of dollars sitting offshore."

The number of illegal immigrants "could be 3 million. It could be 30 million."

Says Wisconsin "hadn’t been won by a Republican since Dwight D. Eisenhower, in 1952. And I won Wisconsin. … Ronald Reagan, remember, Wisconsin was the state that Ronald Reagan did not win."

Says that people "went out in their boats to watch" Hurricane Harvey.

RJ STRAFFORD

But aren't you a member of the New Know-Nothing Party?

HAL DAVIS

Both parties gerrymander districts to its favor when in control of the Legislature. I would like to see it changed, but it has long historical roots as a practice. But of all agencies, one should expect the VA Dept of Elections to be non-partisan.

ADRIAN FLANAGAN

In addition to IT systems that work, we need ones that are highly resistant to tampering -- by people up to and including hostile foreign governments. Want to bet a system that can't keep running is at all secure?

PAGE WILLIAMS

No surprise here...same old, same old. From the FBI all the way down to Dem VA and liberal Richmond.

Ron Melancon

The Swamp lives

Melissa Peters

I would expect Kirk Cox to say it was "devastating". Honestly, though, how much can he cry his crocodile tears given all the Republican gerrymandered districts? In addition, it is unrealistic to think that enough apolitical people could be found who want to do this job. There IS such a thing as unconscious bias and there CAN BE such as thing as oversight and if JLARC is the only group that performs this oversight and its only by request maybe there should be an annual review by JLARC or some other body that is not swayed by a majority party either way.

JEROME FRAWLEY

So you think it is OK for the people who are supposed to ensure fair elections are helping candidates in one party to the detriment of others AND the voters? Why is that not surprising.

Melissa Peters

So you think it's OK to suppress voter registration by making the whole process onerous and burdensome?

Fred Demey

Melissa, Gerrymandering occurs on both sides, but the voter fraud and bias is heavily concentrated in the Democrat electorate. the whole issue with hanging Chads from the GW Bush election was an example, because many of the poll workers were biased to the Democrats. This is why poll watchers are of substantial importance, and the use of voter picture ID MUST be made mandatory, as well as screening poll personnel, to keep the bias to the absolute minimum.

RJ STRAFFORD

"MAny of the poll workers were biased to the Democrats."

And your proof of this is what? Your feverish imagination? Your loyalty to anything GOP? Your inability to face facts. For all the times you call other uninformed, you are the king of ignorance and disinformation.

Welcome to the discussion.

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