Virginia’s elections are under assault.
External threats — including the now-proven Russian cyber-probe of the state’s Virginia Election and Registration Information System (VERIS) elections management software in 2016 — are alarming, but the internal threat is more dangerous.
One need not steal an election to poison democracy. It is sufficient to destroy public confidence in the election results.
On Nov. 5, more than 5.3 million registered voters in Virginia will be entitled to cast their ballots. Four years ago, in a similar “off off-year” election, only 29.1% of the state’s registered voters cast ballots.
Whether turnout is high or low, it is the entire electoral process that desperately needs reform. Critical weaknesses remain unaddressed by successive Virginia administrations and General Assemblies. These include a lack of uniformity, security vulnerabilities, chronic funding shortfalls and systemic failures of oversight in a management ruled and overruled by the governor’s office.
All elections are local. Yet we need uniform administration of elections across the commonwealth. There are more than 700,000 voters in 243 precincts in Fairfax County, but only 2,200 in Norton’s one precinct.
The largest jurisdictions have large staffs, adequate budgets, knowledgeable administrators who support operations, and ballots and instruction in foreign languages where needed. The smallest jurisdictions have cash-strapped administrators who provide the minimum required for election funding.
Are all voters treated equally? Of course not.
The lack of uniformity is compounded by the Virginia Department of Elections’ (VDOE) refusal to issue legal guidance on critical elections-related questions. Witness its silence on misplaced voter registrations, despite multiple recommendations to act by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC). The administration must take a stand, propose or support legislation, and direct the commissioner of elections to take the lead.
Uniformity depends on central guidance, review and supervision.
Cybersecurity might command attention, but it is only part of the story in Virginia. Repeated outages, failures and “downings” across VERIS continue routinely. A much more robust system that can support our critical needs has been promised, but VERIS is a Rube Goldberg contraption held together by baling wire, spit and courage.
I use the word “courage,” because registrars have joined hands across the commonwealth to keep VERIS functioning. Failure is not an option. These registrars are in the front lines while the Department of Elections in Richmond races to develop a request for proposal to replace the failing system. Long-standing neglect has created the potential for fatal systemwide collapse.
Adding multiple-redundancy features to withstand external cyberattacks is useless if you haven’t funded adequate internal infrastructure to begin with.
For decades, successive administrations have reduced funding for the VDOE, partly through reduced appropriations to localities. The current reimbursement to localities is only about 69% of what the Code of Virginia requires.
Cutting the appropriation signals that funding elections is not a priority. The commonwealth does not put its full faith and credit behind its promise in the state code to reimburse localities. That lack of commitment trickles down to the thinking at local levels.
Elections cost a great deal more than registrars’ salaries. Utilities, staff, officers of election, paper ballots, software, security and training all must be paid for.
Four elections are coming in quick succession: this November general election, the March presidential primary, a possible June party primary and the November 2020 general election. The cost will exceed $25 million — all from local revenues.
STATE FUNDING LEVELS
The VDOE also has been underfunded, understaffed and overworked for the past two decades. The sheer volume of work is stupefying. The staff runs at full throttle all day, every day. They sip not from a fountain but a fire hose.
That work is hampered by a fundamental structural weakness: The leadership changes with each administration. Institutional knowledge melts away. Only one staff member has field experience in local elections. Under high stress, with relatively low pay, they persevere, demonstrating courage and extraordinary sense of civic duty.
To understand the relative importance assigned to elections by the governor and General Assembly, compare the $111,000 salary of the commissioner of elections to the $171,000 salary of the state lottery director. This in a year in which the control of the House of Delegates was determined by drawing a name out of a bowl.
As political appointees, the commissioner and deputy commissioner serve at will. JLARC pointed out that VDOE has a larger proportion of political appointees than any other state agency and called for a permanent director of operations to ensure continuity. It should disturb every voter concerned about the nonpartisan administration of elections that no action has been taken.
More troubling, in April Gov. Ralph Northam vetoed Senate Bill 1455, a measure passed by the General Assembly that would have placed appointment of the commissioner of elections in the hands of a five-member State Board of Elections rather than the governor. As a state senator, Northam supported this proposal in 2010; he now objects to surrendering partisan control of elections.
The ability to strengthen our elections system is within our power. It requires political will, courage and obligation to civic duty. It is not a partisan issue.
Neglect becomes negligence. Gross neglect becomes gross negligence.