Sunday, April 21, 2024

Virginia Saw More than 25,000 Ballots Cast via Same-Day Registration in Law’s First Year

A post-2022 midterm election survey found voters “had an overwhelmingly positive experience at the polls,” the report says, with over 88% of respondents saying they were confident their votes would be counted accurately. (Parker Michels-Boyce / For the Virginia Mercury)

RICHMOND — More than 25,000 Virginians tried to cast a ballot in the 2022 midterm elections under same-day registration rules, a new process that had the most impact in college towns, according to statewide data obtained by The Virginia Mercury.

A total of 25,353 ballots were cast via same-day registration in its first year of implementation, found a post-election report that state officials presented Tuesday. Of that amount, 24,297, or 96%, were counted as legitimate votes.

Locality-specific data shows Williamsburg, Charlottesville/Albemarle County, Harrisonburg and Lynchburg saw the highest usage when measured as a percentage of total votes cast. Those localities are home to William & Mary, the University of Virginia, James Madison University and Liberty University, respectively.

The city of Richmond, home to Virginia Commonwealth University, and Montgomery County, which contains the town of Blacksburg and Virginia Tech, also saw strong same-day registration numbers.

In recent interviews, several local election officials said same-day registration, which took effect last fall after Democrats approved it in 2020, seemed particularly popular on college campuses that are often hubs of student organizing and get-out-the-vote outreach.

Charlottesville Registrar Taylor Yowell said the few dozen people who used same-day registration during the early voting window were mostly people who had just moved to the city. The surge on Election Day, when more than 800 people cast ballots via same-day registration according to state data, was different.

“Election Day was absolutely college students,” Yowell said. “It was a lot more intense and a lot busier than what we expected. … I still think it was very successful here in Charlottesville.”

Williamsburg Registrar Tina Reitzel said William & Mary students drove “most” of the nearly 400 ballots cast in her city via same-day registration. Being able to address registration issues on Election Day, Reitzel said, was particularly helpful for people affected by data transfer problems last year that prevented some voter registrations initiated through DMV offices.

“Those that utilized it were happy that it was there,” Reitzel said.

Under Virginia’s old law, the voter registration window closed about three weeks before Election Day, freezing the state’s voter rolls in the final runup to an election. Under the new system, eligible voters can still register after that deadline, enabling late-deciding voters to register and cast a ballot at the same time, including on Election Day. Ballots cast via same-day registration are treated as provisional, meaning they’re set aside for further vetting by local election officials and are only counted if deemed legitimate.

The state’s post-election analysis doesn’t list a primary reason more than 1,000 same-day registration ballots weren’t counted, but that number could include people attempting to register and cast a ballot at the wrong polling place or anyone who had already registered or voted elsewhere.

The extra convenience for voters meant extra work for local election officials, many of whom had to sort through twice as many provisional ballots last year than they did in 2021. In a post-election survey of Virginia registrars, over 75% of respondents listed same-day registration as their top challenge in 2022, according to the state report. Ballots cast via same-day registration made up almost 65% of the provisional ballots election officials had to spend additional time on to ensure there were no problems with a voter’s identity, residency or eligibility.

Several local election officials said the addition of same-day registration at times felt overwhelming for frontline election workers.

“General registrars noted that the increase in provisional ballots put pressure on operations both at polling locations and in general registrars’ offices,” the report from the Virginia Department of Elections says. “In particular, many general registrars reported delays and/or confusion for officers of election in administering the same-day process.”

Still, a post-election survey found voters “had an overwhelmingly positive experience at the polls,” the report says, with over 88% of respondents saying they were confident their votes would be counted accurately.

Republican lawmakers — most of whom favor tougher voting rules regardless of whether they do or don’t espouse baseless theories about widespread fraud or stolen elections — have never been huge fans of same-day registration. Hard-right conservatives like Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, and Del. Dave LaRock, R-Clarke, filed bills this year to repeal the process entirely. Neither of their bills, which would have made broader changes to the election system, got much traction in the recently finished 2023 General Assembly session.

However, the Republican-led House of Delegates approved a bill proponents said would put more guardrails on the process, with support from the advocacy group representing voter registrars who do the ground-level work of accommodating people trying to cast a ballot.

The bill would’ve required Virginians registering after the normal registration deadline has passed to sign a form promising they are not trying to register and vote twice in multiple jurisdictions. That form would also remind would-be voters that intentionally voting twice amounts to felony election fraud.

“We just want to make sure that the person that is registering and then voting is clear once they come in on that day that they understand what’s happening,” said Del. Margaret Ransone, R-Westmoreland, the bill’s sponsor and chair of the House Privileges and Elections Committee.

Democrats were skeptical of the proposal, asking repeatedly if there was any evidence of anyone trying to exploit same-day registration to cast multiple ballots in multiple jurisdictions.

“I’m hoping if there were problems you can tell us which commonwealth’s attorney got that report and how that prosecution’s going,” Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, said at a committee hearing before Senate Democrats voted to kill Ransone’s bill. “I don’t want to hear about innuendo. I want to hear about facts.”

Responding to Deeds, John Ambrose, a Republican member of the Richmond Electoral Board, said he was aware of four cases of people trying to vote twice in 2022. He told legislators those cases had been referred to the office of Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin. McEachin did not respond to inquiries this week about Ambrose’s comments.

It’s unclear if the new process has resulted in any investigations or prosecutions of people whose ballots were rejected.

Asked if the election integrity unit created by Republican Attorney General Jason Miyares was looking at any issues related to same-day registration, Miyares spokeswoman Victoria LaCivita said the office “cannot comment on specific election practices that may or may not be subject to inquiry or investigation.”

Deb Wake, president of the League of Women Voters of Virginia, urged lawmakers to keep the same-day registration law as is, noting numerous voter documents already include clear warnings  that intentionally voting twice is a crime. Adding a new form and a new warning, she said, “is both redundant and would intimidate voters.”

“Same-day voter registration is an overall success and should not be discouraged,” Wake said.

At a State Board of Elections meeting Tuesday, board members seemed mostly concerned with ensuring local election offices would be equipped to handle even bigger same-day registration numbers in next year’s presidential election.

“The workload is exponentially expanded with this much early voting,’ said Republican board Chairman John O’Bannon. “I think those are all important things that we need to be aware of and see what we can do to try to make it as easy as possible and prevent pitfalls going forward.”

Board member Donald Merricks, also a Republican, asked that the post-election report be forwarded to General Assembly members to help them see how voting laws they’ve passed are working in practice.

“I think they need to hear some of the comments from the people that have to put this in place,” Merricks said. “I think they’d think twice about some of the stuff they come up with.”

“That may or may not be true,” O’Bannon replied.

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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