Earlier this month I completed my latest hitch as a volunteer election officer in the City of Fairfax, Virginia. As the "Procedural Specialist" (e.g., Help Desk) for my precinct, I was able to directly observe how the in-person election was conducted. I am here to personally attest that we absolutely followed the rules to the letter – just as we always have, for as long as I have been doing this.
There have been some changes to procedure, and I will go over those in detail below. But the top-line message I want to convey is that the 2021 election demonstrates once again that mass election fraud would be very hard to pull off in Virginia, so long as voters continue to cast votes primarily in person.
This was a high stakes, high visibility election. We had ex-Presidents campaigning in the state. We had wall-to-wall media coverage. The current Vice President personally warned voters that the results of our election would determine the direction of the entire nation. There were controversies in school board meetings, arrests, FBI investigations, charges of domestic terrorism, hoaxes, you name it. Every hot-button button that could be pressed was pressed – hard.
So if ever there were a time when there was ample motive and opportunity to commit mass election fraud, this was it. But what we got instead was another calmly efficient Virginia election where the winners and the losers were separated by a few percentage points and the early results were reported within hours of the polls closing.
There's a reason for this outcome. It doesn't happen by accident.
The secret ingredient of an open and fair in-person election are the people who run the local precincts. In Virginia, in-person elections are run by volunteers. These are civic-minded people, dedicated to making sure things are done on the up and up. Let me tell you a story to illustrate.
In my precinct, we had one heart-stopping moment in the middle of the day: the count of the number of voters checked in did not match the number of votes cast. We were off by one. We do this audit check every hour.
Our precinct leaders immediately launched an investigation. Had we lost control of a ballot? Had a ballot been abandoned? Had we checked someone in who we shouldn't have?
We narrowed it down to the provisional vote count. We keep contemporaneous logs and records of ballots issued for provisional voting, and that's where the number was off. We narrowed it down further to one voter whose paperwork couldn't be reconciled.
And it turned out that this voter was checked in by none other than Yours Truly. I immediately replayed my procedural check list for this voter, all eleven steps. (I absolutely insist that everyone use check lists, regardless of how experienced they are. My mantra is "never guess". Our excellent election staff provide us with inch-thick procedure books every election, pre-printed with check boxes just for this purpose.)
It turned out I had made a mistake on step eleven out of eleven: I had checked the voter in as a normal voter, not a provisional one. So, just a clerical error, not a lost ballot. I corrected the check-in log, reported my mistake, and our crisis was averted.
I say this to give everyone a sense of just how seriously we volunteer election workers take our duties, and how tightly constrained and regulated our voting processes are in Virginia. Would it be possible to defraud our election with its many checks, audits, laws and procedures? Certainly. But to do so at scale would be exceptionally hard, indeed:
- There are many different people on the inside and outside, watching the process in public and in the open.
- There are parallel, contemporaneous records in multiple formats – electronic, hand-written, printed, phoned-in.
- Our procedures are strict and in writing.
- When you vote in person, your ballot goes straight from you to the tabulator. If your vote cannot be tabulated on the spot, you are immediately alerted so you can fix the problem.
- Each year the state does a risk-limiting audit of the tabulation equipment to prove it counts accurately.
- There are treble copies of the tabulated results, kept under seal by different agencies.
- When a recount is needed, we can do an actual recounting, using the exact same paper ballots that were originally cast.
It would be far easier to just win an election fair and square in Virginia. You'd only need to win it by a couple of percentage points.
What Changed in this Election
Now, on to how this election was different. Every time there is a change in the political party control in Virginia, there are changes in our election laws. For the most part, these changes are minor, or have a fairly limited effect.
Voter ID is the poster child of election law changes. For this election there was a loosening of the requirements for what constitutes a valid ID: a photo ID was no longer required, a utility bill with an exact match on the voter's name and address would suffice; a Virginia's driver's license used for ID could be expired; if a voter didn't have any ID at all, the procedure to "cure" this problem was significantly streamlined.
Just as a practical matter, these changes have almost no impact on in-person voting. They neither significantly increase nor decrease voting. In all my years of service, I've run across just a handful of cases where ID was an issue. Now, it may be that loosening voter ID laws would have a larger impact in other contexts such as absentee voting, so I'm not saying the laws don't matter. But they certainly don't matter much for in-person voting. Virtually everyone who comes to vote in person has an ID.
(Since I am often asked for my opinion on voter ID, here it is: I am a fan of voter ID, absolutely. But we need something to compare an ID to in order to assure ourselves that the person presenting the ID is in fact the person who may vote. The only authoritative record we have for that purpose is the poll book, and the poll book's key identifiers are name and home address. Therefore, the best form of an ID is one that is current, is issued by an independent agency, and shows a name and home address. Those are the facts that we can verify against our poll book records and are common enough to also be included in other identity issuers' records. It's no use tightening voter ID requirements beyond these points of validation.)
The second change in this election was a loosening of the rules for absentee voting: voters no longer needed an approved reason for voting absentee (such as being out of state), anyone could vote absentee either by mail or in person early; and the time period for in-person early voting was vastly extended to 45 days before election day.
This rule change does have the potential to enormously affect voting, if a large number of people vote by mail. Voting in-person is simple, direct, secure, and completely private. The ballot goes straight from the voter's hand to the tabulation machine in an open, public room where multiple people are watching. If the vote cannot be tabulated right then and there, the voter is notified and has a chance to "cure" the problem. Voting by mail replaces this time-tested, battle-hardened process with one that is much more complex, involves many more hand-off points, is not as secure, not as private, and cannot be as easily cured of problems should they arise.
Voting by mail doesn't favor one party over another, it just makes a comprehensive, undisputed count that much harder to achieve, in my opinion. And I'm not convinced it measurably increases voter turnout – this last election was the largest turnout ever in the state. It's a lot of extra work for questionable benefits at the price of more uncertainty.
In my business (software development), we have a saying: "Complexity kills". Simple systems are robust. Complex systems are fragile. You want reliability, speed, and high accuracy? Keep it simple.
Needless to say, I am not a fan of mail-in voting. If one cannot cast a vote in person, then mailing is a reasonable fallback, but it should be used only when absolutely necessary.
The good news is that in 2021 the vast majority of Virginians who voted absentee voted in-person early (71%). That number is still too low in my opinion, I'd like to see that number in the upper 90s, but it's a vast improvement over the 2020 election when mail-in voting was much more popular. Glad to see that common sense still prevails.
In-person early voting is a fantastic idea, in my opinion. You get all the security and privacy of a normal vote but without any waiting in lines. Leaving the polls open for 45 days seems way too long to me, however, because it means we have to maintain cast ballots and voting equipment in an open state all that time. That's a long time to leave things open. But there are ways to mitigate that risk, so it's not a major concern for me.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is I am highly confident that defrauding an election here in Virginia would be extremely hard to do, provided voters continue to cast votes primarily in person. It's not impossible to defraud it at scale, but it would take so much more effort, time, and money to cheat than to just spend your time and talents winning votes the right way.