Is targeting voter fraud in Albemarle County worth the effort?

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A sign directing voters to an Albemarle polling place. File photo. A sign directing voters to an Albemarle polling place. File photo.

As debate over Virginia’s controversial new voter ID law rages on, Republicans on the Albemarle County Electoral Board have quietly orchestrated an investigation into what they say are serious vulnerabilities in local voter registration lists. It’s a crusade that’s raised legal questions over improper reproduction of court documents and divided the three-member Board. But vocal Tea Party activist and Board secretary Dr. Clara Belle Wheeler said it’s a necessary step toward avoiding voter fraud—something many Democrats say is a non-issue—ahead of the November elections.

In June, Wheeler and fellow Republican Electoral Board member Alan Swinger started a study of 450 questionnaires of Albemarle jurors who were excused from duty for reasons that should also bar them from voting, and then cross-checked the names against those in the Virginia Election and Registration Information System—a process used by several other Virginia municipalities to pinpoint people who should be pulled from local voter rolls.

They found six people who claimed they were non-citizens, three who identified themselves as felons, two whose families said they were deceased, and 148 who said they’d moved out of Albemarle County still on the voter rolls.

In an August 16 letter explaining the findings to the State Board of Elections, Wheeler extrapolated, saying those numbers could mean that out of about 70,000 registered voters, 3,710 shouldn’t be registered—an error rate of a little over 5 percent.

“This likelihood compromises the integrity of the voting system by exposing it to voter fraud,” Wheeler wrote. The letter went on to urge the state Board to help Albemarle County purge improperly registered voters from its rolls before November, and to encourage other localities to go through their own jury questionnaires “to assess the potential magnitude of the unauthorized voter registration problem” and clean up lists statewide.

But not everyone thinks that’s a good idea.

Albemarle Commonwealth’s Attorney Denise Lunsford said she was surprised when she learned in early August that Wheeler and Swinger had examined years’ worth of jury questionnaires—and alarmed when she found out they’d been photocopied.

“A jury list is not a public record to be exposed to the general public,” Lunsford said, and questionnaires contain sensitive information, including addresses and Social Security numbers. A judge has to agree there’s good cause to examine them, she said, and even then, two Virginia Supreme Court decisions say making copies is prohibited.

Wheeler did get judicial permission to review the records, but photocopying them could get somebody charged with contempt of court, Lunsford said.

The county Electoral Board is split on the matter, too. James Heilman, a former registrar, elections consultant, and the lone Democrat on the three-member Board, said that while he initially said he was O.K. with the plan to dig into jury questionnaires, he voted against going forward with it once he learned the Board had to clear legal hurdles to access the information. He also said he didn’t support Wheeler’s decision to contact the state once the study was done.

“I believe voter registration issues are the purview of the registrar and the state Board, and I think those have shared due diligence in the work to keep our rolls clean,” Heilman said, and local staff and appointed officials’ tiime would be better spent preparing for the upcoming elections.

“I’m just as much as anybody else for having our election rolls clean,” he said. “But there’s a point at which looking for this person or that person on a roll of 70,000 people takes up a lot of time that’s more wisely spent on the electoral process, which is what the Electoral Board is all about.”

It’s not clear whether Wheeler and Swinger’s investigation turned up any actual fraud. County registrar Jake Washburne said that of the six non-citizens found on the rolls, for instance, one was determined to be a city resident, two had become citizens since they filled out the jury questionnaire, and three had no voting history. Of the four who indicated they were felons, he said, three had registered before their convictions and hadn’t voted since, and one had simply ticked the wrong box on the jury questionnaire.

But Wheeler said clean voter rolls are a legal mandate, and there simply aren’t enough checks in the system to make sure people who don’t belong on registered voter lists aren’t there—whether because they’re not citizens, they’ve moved, had their right to vote stripped, or died.

“There are an awful lot of people who die, and it doesn’t get reported,” she said. “Nobody signs a death certificate, they’re buried in the backyard and nobody ever knows they’re dead.”

The lack of oversight means the entire system is vulnerable, she said. “Your vote is one of the most sacred things you’ve got, particularly in our country, and if someone is going to presume to steal your vote by diluting your choice, then you’ve been disenfranchised.”

Wheeler said she and others want states to be able to cross-check their registration databases with federal lists of legal citizens, death records, and felons, but right now, that isn’t possible, and using jury exclusion information is a good alternative—and one that’s used by other Virginia municipalities.

“The system needs to be tightened up so people don’t fall through the holes and the cracks,” she said. “This checking the exclusions on the jury lists was quick and easy, and it was the most straightforward way we had.”

As for the improper photocopying, Wheeler said it was “an honest mistake,” and Lunsford said it’s unlikely anyone will actually be charged with contempt—though the copied records were ordered returned and destroyed.

Ultimately, Wheeler said, the purge was as much about informing voters as it was about cleaning up the rolls. “We want to educate,” she said, and make sure people know that if they move, it’s their responsibility to re-register.  “We don’t want people to be surprised on election day.”

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