Virginia Election Officials Question State Voter Purge List, Finding High Error Rate


Virginia State Board of Elections Secretary Don Palmer

Virginia State Board of Elections Secretary Don Palmer

Local city and county registrars across Virginia are finding significant errors in the list of 57,000 suspected out-of-state voters sent by the state government for purging. And registrars for two of the largest jurisdictions in the Commonwealth say they will likely delay any removals of these voters until after the November 5 elections.

Last last month, Virginia’s State Board of Elections (SBE) distributed a list of names it said it had determined had registered to vote in a different state since their last voting activity or registration in the Old Dominion. This move came after the legislature unanimously amended state law earlier this year to require the board to coordinate its voter rolls with other states and jurisdictions. The three-member SBE panel, appointed by Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) has a two-to-one GOP majority by virtue of the governor’s party affiliation.

Several days after sending out the list of names to purge, SBE Secretary Don Palmer (Virginia’s chief election official) sent an e-mail to the 133 registrars for each of the Commonwealth’s counties and independent cities, instructing them on what to do with the lists they’d received. The letter first explained the process and noted that the state was taking action on voters identified as residing and registering in another state since their most recent activity in Virginia. It noted that each had exactly matched the out of state record on first and last name, last four digits of Social Security number, and date of birth. But, Palmer warned that despite these determinations, the registrars should not just trust the data the SBE was providing:

It is important that you closely review the data provided against the identified individual’s voter registration and voter history in VERIS [the Virginia Election and Registration Information System]. If you believe the match is not accurate, that the individual may have registered in Virginia after their registration in another state, or there is some other issue then you may wish to hold off on cancellation until you have had the opportunity to research the matter further. Ultimately, you need to use your best judgment.

Virginia local registrars are appointed by the city or county’s electoral boards, all of which also are controlled by a two-to-one Republican majority, mirroring the State Board of Elections composition. ThinkProgress reached out to the registrars for each of the ten largest jurisdictions in Virginia and asked them about their experiences with the list. Several noted concerns about the list and those who said they have begun checking the names all said they have found some names included by the SBE in error:

1. Fairfax County (population 1,081,726): Deputy Registrar Gary Scott told ThinkProgress that the county received 7,934 names from the SBE. As of September 11, 728 — more than 9 percent — of those names had been determined to be in error — either because they had registered in Fairfax more recently than the out-of-state registration date or because they had voted in Fairfax since that time. He said Fairfax will carefully review every name before removing anyone from the list.

2. City of Virginia Beach (population 437,994): Registrar Donna Patterson was not immediately available to respond to a ThinkProgress inquiry.

3. Prince William County (population 402,002): Registrar Douglas Geib told ThinkProgress that the county received 2,750 names from the SBE. Noting that his office has only just begun to process that list, he said that they are “taking great care” to review the records before removing anyone. Geib also note that a few of the names on that list were in error and that those voters will not be removed from the rolls.

4. Chesterfield County (population 316,236): Registrar Lawrence C. Haake III told ThinkProgress that he has reviewed that 2,262 names the county received from the SBE and was “not convinced that the data has integrity enough” to act on without “a whole lot of inspection.” After finding ‘in the hundreds of people” who he believes should not be on the list, he said he believes its data “suspect.” In order to thoroughly examine every name of the list, he will delay the process until the November elections. “I think getting ready for the election is more important than this right now,” he explained, “when the data may not be that good.”

5. Loudoun County (population 312,311): Registrar Judy Brown told ThinkProgress that the county received 2,156 names from the SBE. Given her limited staff size and desire to be certain that all of the names should be on the list, she said she “probably won’t get to it until after the elections.” “Chances are this isn’t something that critical that we can’t have the election if we don’t do it,” she observed. Noting that list maintenance is important, she observed that the state has yet to get “all the kinks out” of this process and will hopefully “iron out” the incorrect names before she gets to it. Brown also stressed that any valid registered voter who is removed and shows up on Election Day will be permitted to vote, given that it would be the county’s error, not the citizen’s.

6. Henrico County (population 306,935): Registar Mark J. Coakley told ThinkProgress that the county is examining the names received on a “case-by-case basis.” While he did not know the number of names the SBE had sent his office, he said they were working “after hours” to carefully reviewing each name. While not offering any precise numbers, he said that they have come across names that should be removed, but also some that should not have been on the list.

7. City of Norfolk (population 242,803): Deputy Registrar Stephanie Iles was not immediately available to respond to a ThinkProgress inquiry.

8. City of Chesapeake (population 222,209): Deputy Registrar Mary Lynn Pinkerman told ThinkProgress that the city received about 1,800 names from the SBE has was slowly working through the list. Noting that the process of double checking each name has been “slow going,” she observed that “maybe 10 percent” of the names had re-registered in Virginia after moving to different state and thus should not have been on the removal list.

9. Arlington County (population 207,627): Registrar Linda Lindberg told ThinkProgress that the county received about 2,300 names from the SBE. As they “weren’t a top priority,” they have only recently begun carefully reviewing the list of names. Of those she’s reviewed so far, she said, “a very significant minority look like they are people we want to keep” on the voting rolls — “10 percent sounds about right.” She noted that if anyone does get incorrectly removed, they can always vote by provisional ballot and their vote will be counted if they are a legitimate Virginia voter.

10. City of Richmond (population 204,214): Registrar J. Kirk Showalter told ThinkProgress that the city received 930 names and has not yet taken action on them. Noting that the vast majority of the names Richmond received had already been moved to “inactive status,” having been previously identified by his office as having moved from the address at which they were registered. Examining the rest, he said, he has found a few where the registration date in Richmond was after the registration date in the other state — meaning they should not have been on the list.

Insufficient equipment and staffing and confusion among poll workers were among the causes of the “inordinate lines” that soured Virginia’s November 2012 elections. With the gubernatorial, lieutenant governor, attorney general, and House of Delegates elections just six weeks away, registrars are struggling to find time to thoroughly review these error-riddled lists while also preparing for a smoother Election Day this time around. To avoid this sort of distraction, the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 requires that all systematic voter purges like this be completed at least 90 days before any federal election — but Virginia law has no such requirements for its state and local elections.

SBE Secretary Don Palmer told ThinkProgress that “No master list has been maintained as registration decisions belong to the local registrars. SBE provides information that may aid them in making their registration decisions. While some registrars have informed us that they have identified names not marked for cancellation, this decision better rests in the hands of local election officials than the State Board of Elections.” Palmer also noted that, “If there was an error in the cancellation and the notice was not responded to, the voter will still be able to cast a vote on Election Day and be counted. “