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Youngkin’s win gives GOP chance to (slowly) shape election administration

Person standing
Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin addresses reporters in front of his soon-to-be home, the Executive Mansion, last month. (Photo: Ben Paviour/VPM News)

Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin campaigned on bringing “election integrity” to a state where he acknowledged elections were fair and legitimate. He’ll now have the opportunity to shape how those votes are conducted by picking a new commissioner of elections and giving the GOP majorities on state and local electoral boards.

The changes won’t happen overnight. Youngkin’s pick for commissioner, who oversees the Virginia Department of Elections (ELECT), will begin work in July. And while Wednesday is the deadline for local party committees to submit nominees for all 133 local electoral boards, which oversee the nuts and bolts of election administration, Democrats will retain a majority on most boards through next year because of staggered terms. Democrats will also continue to hold a 3-2 edge on the newly expanded State Board of Elections until 2023, when the terms of three members – two Democrats and one Republican – expire.

Youngkin and his transition team have remained tight-lipped on his potential picks for commissioner and cabinet positions. A spokesperson declined to comment for this story.

On the campaign trail, Youngkin vowed to “re-establish independence and transparency” to ELECT. A 2018 report by the General Assembly’s research arm noted staff complaints of partisan bias under the administration of former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, though it said the situation had since improved.

Youngkin also called for Virginia to update its voter rolls every thirty days, something the state already does. Some of his other proposals, including reinstating voter ID laws, would require passage in Virginia's divided General Assembly.

Youngkin’s stark portrait of Virginia election administration is at odds with many national experts, who say the state is a leader in the field. The commonwealth was the first state to move to auditable paper ballots in the aftermath of the 2016 election and has retained a reputation for fairness, according to David Becker, president of the nonprofit Center for Election Innovation and Research.

“Hopefully Gov.-elect Youngkin will continue that by appointing true professionals who will not fall victim to some of these extreme partisan efforts to delegitimize democracy in some of the states,” Becker said. He pointed to a Republican-backed “audit” in Arizona that election experts say was riddled with error and failed to overturn state-sanctioned results as well as efforts from some Wisconsin lawmakers to challenge that state’s bipartisan election commission.

Clara Belle Wheeler, a former GOP member of the State Board of Elections, said she’d spoken to Youngkin’s team about his decisions. She said it was important Youngkin’s picks for commissioner and State Board of Elections had deep experience in the “nits and grits” of election management rather than campaign experience or political connections.

Wheeler echoed Youngkin’s concerns about updating voter rolls, which the state partially paused in 2020 because of a delayed primary and federal rules barring changes to voter lists 90 days before elections. Wheeler said she would do “cartwheels down Broad Street” if Youngkin could convince Donald Palmer, a former head of state elections who oversaw the controversial removal of 40,000 voters from state lists, back to Richmond from his current post on the federal Election Assistance Committee. Palmer wrote in an email that he had no plans to leave the EAC.

“Whoever is appointed as the next commissioner better have a cot in his or her office, because they're gonna have to roll up their sleeves, and they're gonna have to work,” Wheeler said.

Local GOP committees will also have the opportunity to appoint new members to local electoral boards, who choose voting sites, hire local registrars and coordinate with the state to oversee elections. Youngkin's win means Republicans will gradually gain a 2-1 majority on the local boards, with nominees ultimately selected by the chief judge of the locality's circuit court. The terms expire on a staggered basis every year. Barbara Tabb, president of the Virginia Electoral Board Association, said all but around ten of this year's expired terms came from GOP board members. She argued that the partisan system increases transparency without devolving into ideological bickering.   

“We know we cannot have a partisan hat when we walk into these electoral board meetings, and by and large, that’s how it works,” Tabb said.

That doesn’t mean the boards have been free of controversies. The Democratic Party of Virginia successfully called for the removal of former Richmond Registrar Kirk Showalter over slow and inconsistent results in the 2020 election. In 2018, a judge in Hopewell suspended two Democratic members of that electoral board in 2018 after critics alleged they showed favoritism toward certain candidates and ignored state open-meeting laws.

Tabb said she’d heard increasing reports of election officials being harassed or threatened by members of the public – part of a broader national trend – though it was unclear to her whether those incidents were becoming more frequent or better publicized.

Despite the success of Virginia’s 2021 election and the ones preceding it – backed by audits, court cases, and state and federal election officials –  Becker said he expected misinformation surrounding democratic votes to continue. Polling of GOP voters, conducted by his group, suggested that rhetoric could suppress turnout among Republicans. Becker said he was “cautiously optimistic” Youngkin wouldn’t make picks who echoed misinformation.

“I'm optimistic that we will find there are a lot of really good election officials and people with elections experience [from] both parties in Virginia,” Becker said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that the governor appoints local electoral board members. It has been updated to reflect that local party committees submit their picks for the job to the chief judge of the local judicial circuit.