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Fix promised for Virginia Dept. of Motor Vehicles voter registration issues

Empty chairs are seen at a polling place Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017, in Alexandria, Va. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia’s voter registrations through the Department of Motor Vehicles that prompted false voter fraud prosecutions are still a problem across the commonwealth, months after the issues first emerged in public.

New Elections Commissioner Chris Piper said Friday some answers could come within weeks. He promised local elections officials and the state board that steps to deal with the problem of answers being wrongly filled in automatically or not provided at all would be shared “in coming weeks.”

The Department of Elections and the DMV have been working together on a solution, which would need to include an interpretation of state laws describing the voter registration process.

“The current system with DMV is an issue, and that’s the most polite way to say it,” Norfolk General Registrar Stephanie L. Iles said.

“It threatens the integrity of the voter registration rolls,” she added at a rare roundtable discussion during the State Board of Elections meeting.

Piper described the situation as a “sticky wicket,” given disputes about what information registrars are required to have on hand about each registered voter.

Registrars from all over the state joined in expressing concerns again that incorrect, incomplete or apparently fraudulent voter applications were coming into their offices through the DMV when people attempt to update their addresses or perform other transactions.

The Fairfax County Electoral Board already asked the state attorney general’s office for a legal opinion.

“There is an issue with the system,” Fairfax County Registrar Cameron Sasnett said Friday.

Prosecutors have been warned that the applications submitted to registrars have led to several false prosecutions for voter fraud. The previous commissioner of the Department of Elections, Edgardo Cortes, had said those cases were due to registrars’ misunderstandings of the state’s electronic systems.

The state did change the data connected to DMV applications to remove answers to what voters were not actually asked by the DMV. Disputes remain about whether the current system that sends that reduced level of information to registrars complies with Virginia law and/or poses too much of a burden for elections administrators.

“It’s just very frustrating when we are not sure if we are in full compliance with the law,” Albermarle County General Registrar Jake Washburne said.

“It’s not just a matter of nuance and language for us; it is practical policy that drives everything we’ve done,” Sasnett added.

Piper urged registrars and electoral boards to contact his office individually until a broader response is available. “It was a priority from the beginning of my tenure, so we’re looking at it with an eagle eye,” he said after the meeting.

The issues “are legion,” State Board of Elections Vice Chair Clara Belle Wheeler said, with concerns still raised on a daily basis.

Some of the issues are easier to fix than others though, Chairman James Alcorn said.

Requesting additional documents from other localities has driven up postage costs and burst budgets for registrars’ offices, Iles said, since even some jurisdictions that planned to digitize their voter registration records have not been able to do so quickly because the state only recently got additional server space to store that data.

Generally, local electoral board members and general registrars like Win Sowder of Williamsburg expressed hope and confidence that with better communication and new leadership in the Department of Elections, the issues could be resolved.

But Iles and other registrars want a fix that either includes the Department of Motor Vehicles asking more qualifying questions about voting eligibility, such as citizenship and felony status, or a change to require more registrations be done directly through the Department of Elections website.

“Not a Band-Aid. If DMV can’t do what is required by law … have them [voters] go online,” she said.

Voters whose applications are marked as incomplete risk not being able to vote normally on election day if they fail to respond to letters from local elections officials.

“We already know voter turnout is going to be high every election going forward [after 2016],” Iles said. “This DMV issue, on top of everything else, is something we do not need … it’s ridiculous.”


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