During the middle of the early voting period in Virginia’s 2021 statewide election, Fairfax County — the locality with the largest population of Virginia’s registered voters — repeatedly attempted to disband the state’s election integrity rules. Although advocates claimed they wanted to protect voting rights, the changes would have actually increased the likelihood that vulnerable voters be intimidated and disfranchised. Even though election day is over, election integrity and voting rights should be an issue addressed in the future by the new leadership in Virginia.
Two weeks before election day, Fairfax County officials unilaterally disbanded Virginia’s statewide requirement that mail-in ballot applications contain four digits of a voter’s social security number. The Social Security number requirement in Virginia election law is aimed at protecting vulnerable voters from bad actors submitting ballots under their names without their knowledge or consent. This requirement is explicit in Virginia law, included in the Virginia Department of Elections Handbook, and even printed three times on the absentee ballot.
The county’s unilateral action prompted the non-profit Virginia Institute for Public Policy to file a lawsuit. Attorneys from the Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF), which represents the Institute, argue that the Virginia Constitution prohibits a county from flouting a statewide election law democratically enacted by the legislature. Furthermore, it is simply not fair for a county to try to skirt state law in the middle of the early voting period. On October 29, the judge dismissed the lawsuit, concluding that only a voter, candidate, campaign, or political party can file such a lawsuit, and that the Virginia Institute for Public Policy did not have legal ability to sue. Under such a ruling, the judge avoided addressing the constitutional issue. Despite the dismissal of the lawsuit, PILF has called for the state and local election officials who did not follow state election laws to be removed.
Earlier in October, Democrats on the Fairfax election board also requested that Governor Ralph Northam allow them to ignore the requirement in Virginia law that voters get witnesses to sign their mail-in ballots. Virginia law requires that witnesses be adults over the age of 18. Other than age, there are no limits on who the witness can be — it could be a relative, roommate, neighbor, caretaker, or health care worker. Fairfax County, just one day after the state-wide Virginia Board of Elections publicly announced in a press release that all Virginians must include their social security number on their ballots, still sought to change the rules. It causes confusion for voters who received a different announcement. It should continue to be available for this election to provide evidence for prosecution of voting fraud. This witness requirement has helped prosecutors obtain convictions for fraudulent collection of absentee ballots.
It’s important to recognize who would be impacted by ignoring these state voting laws: vulnerable voters. Fairfax County is the second most diverse county in Virginia.
20% of voters in Fairfax are 60 years of age and older, and may vote by mail because of their higher risk for COVID-19 when voting in-person around many people at the polls. Fairfax has a large population of minority voters — 20% Asian, 17% Hispanic, and 10% African American. It’s their voice that should be heard, not the government officials in a single county seeking to do less work to verify ballots and protect vulnerable voters.
In 2005, the bipartisan Carter-Baker Commission on Federal Election Reform issued a report recognizing that voting at home increases the risk of fraud and the potential to be pressured by others to vote. Since then, ample records of convictions for such fraud demonstrate how bad actors seek to win elections by preying on minorities and foreign-language speakers, older voters, voters with disabilities, and those who live in nursing homes who use mail-in ballots.
The federal government has passed laws specifically protecting these voters who are minorities, foreign language speakers, elderly, or have disabilities nationwide. Likewise, Virginia’s legislature passed state laws requiring witnesses and self-identifying information to build on these federal nondiscrimination laws to further protect these groups. Those voters in Virginia are especially in need of these state election integrity laws, and need their application in Virginia’s state elections uniformly in every county.
Government officials have an obligation to protect the voting rights of those vulnerable to fraud. This is part of their duty to all Virginians to ensure the fairness and accountability of the election process.
Any attempt to change — mid-election — the rules that protect these voters should be viewed with suspicion as an attempt to disfranchise minority voters, voters with disabilities, foreign language speakers, and older voters.