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Improving trust in Virginia's elections

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Election season in Virginia ends on November 8th. Meanwhile, one group has been reaching out to voters to try and improve trust in the election process. WMRA’s Bridget Manley has this report.

The Valley Votes Project has been hard at work this fall reaching out to voters through a variety of voter registration drives, voter educational materials and speaker roundtables.

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Bridget Manley
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BOBBI GENTRY: Our interest is really to engage the Shenandoah Valley. And so, how can we engage voters, not just college students, but the community as well - the public as well.

Dr. Bobbi Gentry is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Bridgewater College. Gentry, along with Dr. Ben Blankenship, Assistant Professor at James Madison University, are actively fighting against misinformation about how our elections are run, and educating voters about the safety and integrity of elections.

And the good news is that elections in Virginia remain very secure. Election officials must follow multiple laws that ensure that votes cannot be tampered with, and election workers are trained to follow multiple processes that ensure that the vote totals can be trusted.

Taylor Yowell is the General Registrar and Director of Elections for Charlottesville. She says her staff and the election workers have several steps that they must follow in order to keep our ballots secure.

TAYLOR YOWELL: I know in Virginia, at the very least, there are so many checks and balances and we have such a tight chain of custody on how we handle every piece of documentation, and every single piece of election equipment, of ballots. Everything we do is secure.

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Dr. Kevin Pallister is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Bridgewater College. He says that while elections remain secure, the threat to election integrity in the country is coming from those who still support the baseless claim that the 2020 election was stolen - otherwise known as The Big Lie.

KEVIN PALLISTER: There is a movement that is, you know, about 30% of the country, that supports the efforts to overturn the election. Whether that’s out of a genuine belief that the election was actually rigged, or that you just admit because the other side winning is so terrible that it is worth overthrowing an election because you basically cannot live under the rule of the Democratic Party, they are willing to compromise some principles like elections and democracy, because losing carries such high stakes.

While local voter registrars are dealing with understaffing issues and disgruntled voters, they report that they are not receiving threats of harm or death, or other tactics such as inundation of FOIA requests meant to bog offices down and keep them from their work. Yowell says that’s a welcome change from the 2020 election.

YOWELL: So we got excessively overrun with FOIAs following the 2020 presidential, and I know that a lot of the ones we got - or what a lot of localities got across the state - I don’t know if they did it to every single locality, but it was from third parties, and organizations, it was from voters in general, we got super super overrun with FOIAs after the 2020 election.

Pallister says that on a national level, he expects threats against election officials and poll workers to increase, rather than decrease, but much of the ire is focused on swing states in close elections.

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Bridget Manley
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Polling volunteers in Harrisonburg

PALLISTER: I fully expect that in this year, or in 2024, we are going to see more and more of this, of threats against election workers. And I will not be surprised to see some of them carried out, just like there was the attempted kidnapping of the governor of Michigan in 2020. So, I think this is a brewing problem that is getting worse, and I don’t think we are prepared for it.

Election officials locally say that possible threats are on their minds.

MARK FINKS: Yeah, I don’t think more so than any past elections, I think that just, in general, there is heightened concerns around elections, you know, among our Officers of Elections, our staff, and our electoral board. It’s just kind of the nature of where we are with elections in the country right now.

Mark Finks is the Director of Elections for the city of Harrisonburg. He says that they routinely have conversations with police departments to ensure the safety of poll workers and voters.

FINKS: In regards to security for our elections here in Harrisonburg, the electoral board works closely with HPD. So, we actually recently had a meeting with the Harrisonburg Police Force discussing different strategies as far as election day is concerned, and things we should be aware of.

Carol P. Gaunt is the Director of Elections for Page County. She reports that while they have had a quiet fall, she has gotten many disgruntled calls from voters who want more to vote on in the mid-terms. Currently, the only two races on the ballot in Page County are for the 6th congressional district and a special election for commonwealth’s attorney.

CAROL P. GAUNT: We have had an immense number of calls wanting to know when ‘we are going to have a mid-term.’… ‘I thought this was the mid-terms.’ They don’t understand that the ballot is a small ballot this year. And I think they are anticipating they are going to walk in to vote and find a whole slate of candidates.

Early voting in Virginia continues through November 5th. Election Day is November 8th. And remember your ID when you go to vote.

Bridget Manley graduated with a degree in Mass Communications from Frostburg State University, and has spent most of her adult life working as a morning show producer and reporter for WCBC Radio in Cumberland, MD and WNAV in Annapolis, MD. She moved to Harrisonburg seven years ago and is also a reporter for The Harrisonburg Citizen. When she’s not reporting the news Bridget is the Manager of Operations for Rivercrest Farm and Event Center in Shenandoah, VA, and she also hosts a podcast that shares parenting stories called Birds In A Tree.