Fixing Virginia’s Elections to Save America 

Some say we should not worry about the integrity of future elections until we have resolved concerns about the 2020 elections. In Virginia, sadly, we lack the luxury of time. As one of only two states (the other is New Jersey) that have statewide elections this year, we must act now if we are to have any effect on improving voter confidence that our process is free and fair, and our elected representatives legitimately chosen.

What happens in Virginia is important for all other states because we are the test case; a pilot study for what works in election integrity, and what might not. Virginia will also be the proving ground for those who want to undermine elections. Shady activists and dark money will soon flood into the state, since we are essentially the only game in town in 2021 (New Jersey’s elections are hardly contested).

From the perspective of an experienced specialist in transparent and credible election processes, I can tell you, American elections are a mess. We have always had a mix of ill-defined, non-transparent, inefficient, and constantly changing processes; and this confusion was multiplied through ill-advised changes in procedures in response to the COVID pandemic last year. These problems have created such severe doubt in the integrity of American elections that they now threaten faith in our democracy. 

Virginia’s elections are as broken as any, with concerns that include: a lack of transparency in processes and procedures; a perception of bias in election administration; inaccurate voting lists and lack of effective voter ID; intimidation and fraud through mail-in voting and ballot harvesting; doubt in the accuracy and security of machine-based voting; and the influence of dark money in campaigns and election processes.

Restoring confidence in the integrity of Virginia’s elections will require fundamental reform of election laws and procedures to increase the transparency and security of the entire process. These reforms include: allowing effective observation of all election processes; ending most early and mail-in voting; requiring ID and proof of citizenship to vote; manual rather than machine-based voting and counting processes; prohibition of private funding of election processes, and prohibition of funding for campaigns from outside the affected constituency. 

In 2020, incidents were reported in Virginia (and across the country) of observers being prevented from effectively monitoring election processes. Transparency is the key to creating voter confidence in the integrity and legitimacy of elections; all election processes must be open to effective observation by both partisan and nonpartisan observers. This is the standard of transparency we demand of developing democracies in Africa and Asia, and it is a disgrace to this nation that Virginia (and many other states) cannot meet it.

Virginia has no specific regulation authorizing nonpartisan observers, meaning independents and minor parties have no opportunity to participate in ensuring free and fair elections. Our state also makes it very hard for election integrity organizations to assess the accuracy of its voter roll by limiting access to selected organizations, and charging exorbitant fees for electronic files that cost next to nothing to copy. (Files that cost $10,000 in Virginia are provided free or for a nominal fee in other states).

To make it easier to vote, Virginia’s election day has expanded to an election season; but early voting, mail-in voting, and ballot harvesting all facilitate voter intimidation, impersonation, ballot box stuffing, and other forms of fraud. To protect our elections, we must return to a single election day, when Virginians join together in a celebration and reaffirmation of our commitment to democracy. Rather than extending the voting period or using insecure mail-in ballots to increase participation at the expense of election integrity, we can simply make election day a mandated holiday. Absentee voting can then be limited to those with a genuine and provable need.

Almost every democracy in the world requires voter ID and proof of citizenship to vote. To suggest that Virginia is incapable of providing its citizens voter ID, when developing countries from Bangladesh to Zambia accomplish this easily, only fuels the perception that politicians’ true aim is to facilitate cheating. Virginians deserve confidence that only qualified citizens are voting, and that they are only voting once. 

Voting and counting machines are inherently non-transparent, prone to malfunction, and are viewed by experts as highly susceptible to rigging. (Katie Hobbs, Secretary of State in Arizona recently admitted this when she said that machines being audited in Maricopa County could no longer be certified because they could be undetectably altered to favor a particular party.) Machine processes cannot be effectively observed and certified by election officials, observers, or ordinary citizens; and as such they have no place in Virginia’s elections. To restore confidence in the integrity of elections we must revert to a simple, transparent, and manual polling and counting process.

Dark money from outside the state continues to pollute Virginia elections, and is likely to be an even bigger problem in 2021. In 2020, the politically active billionaire Mark Zuckerberg gave $4,000,000 to Fairfax County for election administration, fueling suspicion of vote buying, bribery, and undue influence. Under Virginia law, elections should be funded by towns and counties, so on the surface this appears to be illegal, and may be challenged in court. Regardless of the outcome of those cases, the General Assembly and governor must prohibit such external funding in the future. 

Likewise, “foreign” funding of election campaigns should be prohibited in Virginia. No country allows foreign funding in their election campaigns, because in a democracy only the citizens who will be represented should have influence over who is elected. The same principle applies (or should apply) across constituencies in the United States. For example, it is incredibly unfair and undemocratic for Silicon Valley moguls to fund candidates in southwestern Virginia; just as it is unfair for Richmond elites to buy a delegate race in the Shenandoah Valley. If it is not possible to prohibit these undemocratic practices, “foreign” funding of Virginia elections must be monitored and exposed by observation organizations and the media to ensure voters know who is trying to unfairly influence our elections, and which candidates have been “bought.”

Virginia established the first representative institution in the western hemisphere in 1619, and led the way in the establishment of our republic in 1776. In 2021, let’s lead the way in establishing election processes that are transparent, fair, and inspire confidence in the democratic legitimacy of our elected officials.

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About Tim Meisburger

Tim Meisburger is an election integrity and international development specialist. During the Trump Administration, he was a Deputy Assistant Administrator at USAID, and the Director of the Center for Democracy, Rights and Governance.

Photo: Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images