Virginia’s Election Integrity Unit: Safeguard or ‘stunt’?

After Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares’ announcement Friday of the formation of an Election Integrity Unit in his office, the attorney general spoke with reporters Tuesday about the structure of the new unit. Meanwhile, two commonwealth’s attorneys and a law professor told WTOP the unit was unnecessary and the move smacked of politics — and worse.

In the statement announcing the formation of the unit on Friday, Miyares’ office said the election unit would work with “the election community … to ensure uniformity and legality in application of election laws,” as well as with law enforcement to ensure what they called “legality and purity in elections.”

Miyares on Tuesday said the unit had three jobs: to advise the state Department of Elections on the law; to similarly advise local elections boards on the law (“This is what the law is; it can’t be what you think the law is; it’s what the law is,” Miyares said, without specifying any localities who are improvising definitions of the law); and the prosecution of those who violate election law.

Miyares said he doesn’t consider the unit a new addition, since there’s already an election law unit in his office. “There’s not a single new lawyer that’s going to be hired” for the unit, and “not a single new dollar is going toward this at all.”

There haven’t been any signs of significant voter fraud in Virginia. Last year, WTOP’s Nick Iannelli asked Miyares whether the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump; he replied, “Nope.” Asked whether he thought that there was any significant voter fraud in Virginia, he replied, “No, I don’t.”

That said, Miyares spokeswoman Victoria LaCivita on Friday answered the same question from the Virginia Mercury by referring to the indictment of former Prince William County election official Michele White on corruption charges and adding that the office “cannot comment on pending investigations.” She didn’t give any more details on what White is accused of.

‘Chase ghosts’

Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano told WTOP’s Megan Cloherty on the “DMV Download” podcast that the creation of the unit was politically motivated rather than a necessary move to protect Virginians, calling it something out of “Ron DeSantis’ playbook,” referring to the Florida governor who created an election security team that has arrested 20 people so far. The cases may be falling apart, seeing as how the registration applications of many of those arrested were processed by the state — in one case, by a future member of the election security board himself.

“If there were real election fraud cases, I would know,” Descano said, “because I’m the prosecutor for the largest jurisdiction in the entire commonwealth.”

So far, Descano said, he hasn’t spoken with every commonwealth’s attorney in Virginia about the unit, but he said he wasn’t contacted by Miyares or anyone from his office before the announcement, and neither was any commonwealth’s attorney he’s spoken to so far.

Miyares “has been talking about the need for more resources at the state legislature,” Descano said. “He has been asking for more prosecutors, has been asking for more staff. … You know, if he has such a dearth of staffing, why would you take 20 or so of your personnel and have them chase ghosts, which is really what this whole unit is probably going to be set up to do?”

Buta Biberaj, the commonwealth’s attorney for Loudoun County, said she hadn’t been contacted about the move either, and that she should have been in on the process.

“If there’s a problem, we should be part of that partnership to see what we can learn,” Biberaj said. “Because we’re on the ground level.”

She predicted pressure on her office from the attorney general’s office, or from Gov. Glenn Youngkin, and pointed out that there wasn’t a factual basis offered.

“What is the data behind it to suggest that there is a problem?” Biberaj said. “Can’t we use our tax dollars a little bit differently, and maybe more positively, to figure out how do we solve a problem that actually exists?”

She said the move would be confusing to voters, and lead to more division and suspicion in the commonwealth.

“That’s the part that I wish people would understand in leadership,” Biberaj said. “Don’t pull these political stunts and not think that there’s damage.”

‘There is no evidence’

Bertrall Ross, a distinguished professor of law at the University of Virginia, and director of the Karsh Center for Law and Democracy, told Cloherty “there is no evidence of widespread or systematic fraud.”

Ross said the election integrity unit could also focus on campaign finance laws and mistakes by election officials. “But when it comes to voters themselves, there’s very little evidence of fraudulent actions in terms of voting twice or voting illegally. So some of it seems to be inspired by the Big Lie associated with the 2020 election that’s been propagated in Republican circles, suggesting that there is widespread fraud. There is no such fraud.”

With the establishment of the unit, “My worry is the deterrent effect, and the sense of concern and fear of voting, that this will create within those communities who may have a looser attachment with the democratic process,” Ross said.

Ross said the historical parallels are troubling. He drew parallels with post-Reconstruction period, in the late 19th century, where, along with violence, state and local governments sought to suppress African-American votes “through different forms of misinformation that arose from government actions.”

“So we’ve seen some of this playbook before,” Ross added. “It’s in a bit different form right now. But it’s just as concerning.”

WTOP’s Megan Cloherty and Mike Murillo contributed to this report.

Rick Massimo

Rick Massimo came to WTOP, and to Washington, in 2013 after having lived in Providence, R.I., since he was a child. He's the author of "A Walking Tour of the Georgetown Set" and "I Got a Song: A History of the Newport Folk Festival."

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up