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BASS: We need to investigate – and overhaul – the Virginia Department of Elections

The Virginia government is making it harder for residents to vote which is absolutely unacceptable.

<p>The Department needs to more successfully secure the right to vote for eligible voters. &nbsp;</p>

The Department needs to more successfully secure the right to vote for eligible voters.  

The 2023 general election for Virginia is less than a week away. For two consecutive years, the Virginia Department of Elections has made significant errors concerning voter registration. As we near another important election, the voters of Virginia cannot afford to have such a careless and unorganized Department. These kinds of mistakes are absolutely unacceptable. Voting is a fundamental right in the United States and the Department needs to take that seriously. 

It came to light at the beginning of October that the Virginia Department of Elections incorrectly removed eligible voters from the Virginia voter roll. The Department made a new rule that if a felon had their voting rights restored and then committed another felony, they would be ineligible to vote. In a supposed error, individuals ended up removed from the voting rolls who had technical probation violations, but no new felony charges. When this announcement was first made, the exact number of voters removed was unknown, but thought to be a few hundred. We now know that around 3,400 Virginians were removed from the voting rolls. 

This is the second year in a row that the Department has screwed up, and also the second time it has made mistakes while early voting was in process. Last year, there was a backlog of 107,000 voting registration and voting change applications. Then, only one week before the 2022 midterm elections, the Department announced that they found an additional 149,000 applications that had not been processed, prompting them to be sent to local registrars. It should not be the responsibility of local registrars to fix the Department’s mistakes. Given that there have been errors in Virginia voting registration for two years in a row, there needs to be an investigation into why the Department is making errors that dangerously infringe upon Virginians’ right to vote. 

The Department needs to more successfully ensure that eligible voters can actually vote. In 2018, Virginia was the 49th hardest state to vote in. Some reforms have been made, such as waiving requirements for a polling place if no buildings in a precinct meet such standards so that people can still vote within their own precincts. As evidenced by the failures of the Department, however, these reforms are not enough. Legal changes that expand access to the polls do not work if negligent behavior by the department responsible for overseeing elections is actively making it harder to vote. A government agency that is supposed to uphold the cornerstone of democracy should never be responsible for the mass disenfranchisement of voters. 

The removal of eligible voters is concerning, but so is the lack of transparency from the Department. When they announced that this latest voter roll purge had occurred, the Department acknowledged that it had been incorrectly removing eligible voters for the last nine months. One has to question how a governmental agency responsible for elections has been incorrectly removing voters from the voter rolls for three-quarters of a year without identifying the error. The Department and Governor Glenn Youngkin claimed that this issue would be corrected by Nov. 7, which is Election Day. In a similarly problematic fashion, the Department released a statement last year regarding their backlog that blamed the entire situation on a computing error that they then just sent off to local registrars to handle. 

In both of these instances, these errors meant and will mean that early voting is completely inaccessible to a whole host of individuals who have had their voting rights unduly stripped away by the state.

It is disappointing and unacceptable that the Department has messed up the list of eligible voters in a way that fundamentally reduces voting accessibility for the second year in a row. Moreover, each time it has not been transparent about its failures. There are very real and dangerous consequences to the Department’s  negligent actions. Board members, who oversee and adopt election policies and regulations, must be held accountable for the inadequate handling of voter rolls. Virginia’s Senators and Democratic congressional delegation have called for a Department of Justice investigation into whether or not the actions of the Department violated the Voting Rights Act. This is a step in the right direction, and Virginians can add to that pressure to try to ensure that this investigation occurs by publicly voicing their concerns and reaching out to their state representatives. Ultimately, these recurring issues suggest that the Department needs extensive reform to ensure genuine transparency and that it is actually able to uphold our right to vote. Voting is the basis of our democracy — we cannot afford to negotiate on it.

Elisabeth Bass is a Viewpoint Writer who writes about Politics for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at opinion@cavalierdaily.com.

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