Category Archives: Electoral process

A Non-Partisan Election Reform: Shorter Lines

Here’s an idea for election reform that everyone should be comfortable with: reducing the time voters spend in line at the polls.

In 2014 a bi-partisan Presidential Commission on Electoral Administration called on state and local officials to ensure that voters wait no more than 30 minutes to cast a ballot. As a voter who spent an hour or more waiting in line in the 2016 election, I would greatly appreciate any effort to cut the logjam.

Writing in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, John Fortier and Donald Palmer with the Bipartisan Policy Center describe a nationwide study in 2016 of election lines. That study encompassed 17 Virginia jurisdictions representing more than 2 million registered voters, or nearly 40 percent of all registered voters in the state.

Our data shows that more than 80 percent of Election Day lines in Virginia occur before noon. Moreover, we found that steps taken by Virginia officials after the 2012 and 2014 elections to allocate resources more effectively did decrease the average wait times at the polls. In 2016, Virginia voters waited an average of less than nine minutes to vote — down dramatically from 24 minutes in 2012 and 28 minutes in 2008. This decrease is one of the largest in the country.

When equipped with the right data, local officials can make smart and informed choices about where and when to deploy resources on Election Day, designing a structure that works best for their unique situations. Until now, however, those officials were flying blind with little to no data to guide or back up decision-making.

It’s nice to know that our election officials are doing something right. I’m looking forward to a snappy, nine-minute wait in the gubernatorial election this fall.

You Either Want to Change the System or You Don’t

Tom Perez and Michael Steele

by Brian Cannon

On a recent panel at the Aspen Institute (starting at 51:30), Tom Perez (DNC Chair) and Michael Steele (former RNC Chair) touched on the issue of redistricting reform. Perez said one of the most important things we need to do is engage in redistricting reform. Steele agreed. He also applauded Governor Larry Hogan’s (R-MD) efforts to create a new redistricting system in Maryland. In doing so, Steele made the salient point that Perez and those in the audience should also get behind the Maryland efforts on reform. “You either want to change the system or you don’t.”

Amen. Talking about North Carolina’s need for redistricting reform but leaving out Maryland’s should raise everyone’s suspicions. Steele nailed it, and we should all listen carefully.

This sounds a bit like Governor Jon Inslee (D-WA) remarking that America needs redistricting reform on Pod Save America (at 38:10). He started out so well. Gov. “Stop gerrymandering,” Inslee said. “Start giving people adequate representation in districts.” But then he had to finish with this:  “the key to stop gerrymandering is to elect Democratic governors as soon as we can.”

What?! The idea that this issue is partisan is laughable. It’s about power and whether the people are loud enough to take that power back from the incumbents – whether from Democrats in Maryland, Republicans in North Carolina, or, as in Virginia in 2011, from both parties. No party has a monopoly on virtue here.

As Steele said, governors around the country are pushing for redistricting reform, but the efforts of Republicans Kasich and Hogan are just as worthy as those of Democrats Inslee and McAuliffe. The R or D next to their name doesn’t change a thing.

Michael Steele is right — you’re either for reform or you’re not. Perez is right that the system is so broken that there is no incentive for either side to come to the middle. But you can’t be for reforming that system in North Carolina but not in Maryland. That’s hypocritical. Voters can sense this, too.

Brian Cannon is executive director of OneVirginia2021.

Final Count: 5,556 Non-Citizens Registered to Vote in Virginia

The Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF) and Virginia Voters Alliance have uncovered documentary that at least 5,556 non-citizens have been illegally registered to vote in Virginia since 2011, and that 1,852 of them cast 7,474 ballots before election officials canceled their registrations.

Those numbers are considerably higher than figures provided in a study last year based upon inquiries into eight jurisdictions. This updated study, “Alien Invasion II,” reflects registration and voting patterns for all cities and counties.

These numbers don’t reflect all voting by non-citizens, just those who were identified by city and county registrars. Under the Motor Voter law, it is illegal but easy for non-citizens to register to vote, and registrars make little effort to weed them out. The 5,556 non-citizens stricken from the rolls were self-reported.

PILF claims to have overcome massive obstructionism to acquire the data for all Virginia localities. Its inquiries have found zero interest by local commonwealth attorneys to prosecute individuals who voted illegally, and Governor Terry McAuliffe has vetoed two bills designed to address the problem of voting non-citizens. It is mind-bending that Virginia news outlets have show so little interest in this problem. It’s almost as if there was… nah, it couldn’t be… rampant media bias.

Tom Perriello — the Radical Chic Candidate

George Soros

After Virginia gubernatorial candidates filed their campaign finance updates yesterday, all eyes turned to Democratic Party candidate Tom Perriello. The progressive populist, who decries the role of big money in politics, was himself the largest beneficiary of big money of the six announced candidates.

The Perriello campaign pocketed $385,000 from hedge fund billionaire George Soros and two sons, as well as $230,000 from Avaaz, a global activist organization that Perriello co-founded.

Perhaps of greater interest is the large stash raised from Charlottesville, Perriello’s hometown. Never in all my years as an observer of Virginia politics have I seen such large contributions bubble forth from the People’s Republic. Whether this gusher of campaign contributions portends an inflection point in Virginia politics, I don’t know. But it is remarkable.

Here is a list of Perriello’s top donors, with details added from a couple of hour’s worth of Googling:

Sonjia Smith — $500,000. A University of Virginia graduate and Charlottesville resident, Smith is married to hedge fund manager Michael D. Bills, founder of Bluestem Asset Management. In a Roanoke Times column explaining why she supports Perriello, she described herself as a “single-issue voter” on the issue of women’s reproductive rights. According to the Virginia Public Access Project, she had donated $968,000 to Democratic candidates in Virginia through 2016 before stroking the big check to Perriello.

George Soros — $250,000. New Yorker, hedge fund manager, chairman of the Open Society Foundations, and prolific funder of progressive causes.

Avaaz –$230,000. Global, not-for-profit activist group.

Alexander Soros — $125,000. Alexander Soros, son of multibillionaire George Soros, is a New York philanthropist who promotes social justice and human rights causes.

Courtney C. Smith — $75,000. ???

Stephen Silberstein — $50,000. Northern Virginia semiconductor executive.

Christopher Weitz — $25,000. There is a Christopher Weitz who is a New York-born film producer and screen writer. I’m not certain he is one and the same as the donor to Perriello’s campaign.

John Grisham — $25,000. Best-selling author and supporter of progressive causes who lives in the Charlottesville area.

Margaret Gupta — $25,000. Gupta is married to Shashikant Gupta, CEO of Apex CoVantage, a Herndon technology firm. Co-founder of the Gupta Family Foundation, she says that Apex should be “an agent of positive social change.”

Timothy Chapman — $25,000. Chapman heads Reston-based Chapman Development LLC, a developer of affordable housing projects.

Dario O Marquez — $20,000. A former member of the Secret Service, Marquez is co-founder of MNM Inc., an Ashburn-based private security contractor.

Lilly Bechtel — $10,000. Charlottesville yoga instructor, writer and musician.

Kay Leigh Ferguson — $10,000. Ferguson is director of Charlottesville’s Madwoman Project, which produces avant garde theater performances.

Roberta B. Williamson — $10,000. Charlottesville resident. Major donor to Democratic Party candidates.

Stanislav Reisky de Dubnic — $10,000. Reisky de Dubnic is a principal in Charlottesville-based Apex Clean Energy.

Peter Devine — $10,000. ???

David J. Matthews — $10,000. Famed Charlottesville musician.

Jonathan T. Allan Soros — $10,000. Son of George Soros, CEO of New York-based JS Capital Management, and prominent donor to progressive causes.

Laura DeBonis — $10,000. ???

The picture that emerges here is a candidate whose financial support comes overwhelmingly from progressive communities in New York, Northern Virginia and above all Charlottesville. Among big-check donors, he appears to have zero support outside those areas. From his advocacy of a $15 minimum wage and free community college to his support of renewable energy and attacks on electric utilities, he is all on board with the green/social justice agenda. Virginia has never seen a serious statewide candidate like this before.

As Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter Jeff Schapiro observes, “Perriello’s candidacy, much like McAuliffe’s losing bid in 2009, is top-down. It is a lot of drama, magnified by millennial-specific social media and cable news breathlessness, intended to capture the votes of Virginians not necessarily active in Democratic politics but absolutely agitated by Donald Trump.”

Hypocrisy alert. Perriello has staked out a position as a pro-green, anti-Dominion candidate opposed to interstate pipelines transporting fracked gas through Virginia. Yet he has accepted $250,000 from George Soros, whose Soros Fund Management in 2016 had holdings in 11 oil and gas companies. Should he return Soros’ money? Should he insist that Soros divest himself of his oil and gas assets? Are his support of renewables and attacks on power companies sincere or opportunistic?

When Registered Voters Outnumber Voting-Age Citizens

Time for a closer look at the number of registered voters in Virginia.

Time for a closer look at the number of registered voters in Virginia. Photo credit: Virginian-Pilot

Eight localities in Virginia have more registered voters than voting-age citizens, and in another 15 localities registered voters amount to 95% of the voting-age citizens. Sound funny to you?

SB 1105, authored by state Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, and approved by the Senate, would require registrars to look into the data whenever the ratio exceeds 100%.

America is a mobile country. People move between localities and states frequently. While voters typically think to register in a new locality, I doubt it occurs to them to inform registrars in their former localities that they have departed. Speaking for myself, I would expect registrars to exchange information with each other and figure this out for themselves. But it appears that the administrative systems of some registrars offices are ill equipped to keep up with the population flux. If thousands of people across Virginia are improperly registered in multiple localities, that creates the potential for abuse by unscrupulous individuals.

(Some say that fraudulent voting occurs infrequently, so what’s the point in worrying about it. I would respond this way: We don’t know that it occurs infrequently, only that registrars have no systems in place to determine whether illegal voting is occurring, and that in instances where discrepancies have been reported to local authorities, commonwealth attorneys have shown little interest in prosecuting them.)

Speaking as a citizen, I don’t think it’s too much to ask registrars, perhaps with the assistance of the state, to put processes into effect that systematically update voter rolls for deaths, address changes and improper registration by noncitizens.

By the way, another Obenshain bill would require the periodic audit of voting machines, and a third asks registrars to adopt electronic pollbooks that allow them to match voters’ photo IDs to DMV identification records.

PILF Inquiry into Noncitizen Voting Gains Traction

PILF will gain access to Chesterfield and Manassas documentation on noncitizen voting.

PILF will gain access to Chesterfield and Manassas documentation on noncitizen voting.

The Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF) has closed lawsuits against Chesterfield County and the City of Manassas, a step that will allow the organization to determine the total number of noncitizens, known to authorities, who registered and voted illegally.

Under the U.S. motor-voter law, citizens are allowed to register to vote when they pick up their driver’s licenses. Some non-citizens register illegally and later cast ballots. Sometimes registrars spot the illegal registrations and remove the non-citizens from the voter rolls. PILF has obtained the documentation for such instances for eight Virginia jurisdictions, but many, including Chesterfield and Manassas, refused to cooperate, citing privacy laws.

“These are positive steps toward quantifying the true extent of noncitizen voter registration in Virginia,” PILF President and General Counsel J. Christian Adams said in a web post. “Washington and Richmond alike are positioned to consider various election integrity reforms and are right to do so. Those discussions deserve precise data like we’ve obtained.”

PILF’s data dive into the eight cooperating localities found that registrars had uncovered more than 1,000 illegally registered noncitizens and documented that some 200 of them had cast ballots. If the magnitude of noncitizen voting holds true in other Virginia localities, it is possible that more than a thousand noncitizens have cast ballots statewide.

Such a number would fall far short of assertions by President Trump that noncitizens contributed millions of illegal votes nationally but it also would contradict widespread media claims that noncitizen voting is negligible. The data does not include noncitizens whose illegal registrations were not discovered by local registrars.

Less Turnover than the Supreme Soviet

by Brian Cannon

The United States has a dearth of competitive Congressional elections. Of the 435 voting seats in the House of Representatives, only 36 were competitive this past November. Politicians have brilliantly gerrymandered out almost all competition from their districts to ensure themselves easy re-elections. With only about 8% of our elections considered competitive in 2016, President Reagan’s words in 1988 still ring true:

With a 98% rate of re-election, there’s less turnover in the House [of Representatives] than in the Supreme Soviet, and a seat in Congress is one of the most secure jobs in America.

Many factors work against competitive districts – residential sorting, incumbency advantages in campaign finance laws, and gerrymandering all play a role. The first two, however, have First Amendment protections that make them tricky, if not impossible, to address through systematic reform. The last – gerrymandering – does not have a constitutional protection and there are clear legislative paths to address this problem. Confronting gerrymandering also seems to address this competitiveness problem.

A careful examination of the few competitive districts we have shows a clear take away: States with redistricting reform are producing a much larger share of competitive districts than those without reform. Competitive districts are coming from states like Iowa, California, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Washington and even New Jersey. Disproportionately so.

• In 2016, of the 36 competitive seats, 15 came from just seven reform states (41.67%).
• In 2014, of the 46 competitive seats, 21 came from those seven reform states (45.65%).

The reform states make up 30% of the seats in the House of Representatives and have created 44% of our competition. Projecting this out with some back-of-the-envelope math based on 2014 and 2016 numbers, we’d have about 60 total competitive seats for our lower chamber if the remaining 44 states adopted reform. Reform doesn’t ensure competition everywhere, but it helps take the politician’s hand from the scale in potential swing districts.

Fortunately, more states are coming on board. Ohio and New York have instituted reform for the upcoming decade with promise of other states following suit. As Henrico resident Mark Hile said recently in a letter supporting redistricting reform to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “If we want better government, let’s expose it to some competition.”

Brian Cannon is executive director of OneVirginia2021.

2016 a Big Year for Libertarian Party

Jessica Abbott, a Libertarian, won a seat on Virginia Beach City Council, but the Libertarian Party still faces obstacles in Virginia.

Jessica Abbott, a Libertarian, won a seat on Virginia Beach City Council.

Unless you read the LP News, you probably didn’t realize that 2016 was a record-breaking year for the Libertarian Party. The national news media tuned out Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson after he suffered his “Aleppo moment,” and his poll numbers fell in the last weeks as the race tightened between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Yet he still won nearly 4.4 million votes — more than three times the previous number garnered by the Libertarian candidate in 2012.

Other third-party candidates have fared better — anyone remember George Wallace and Ross Perot? But the Libertarian Party represents a movement that is bigger and longer lasting than any one candidate. Nearly 500,000 Americans are registered as Libertarians, a new high. Nearly 1.7 million votes were cast for Libertarian candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives, also a new high. In Alaska, the Libertarian candidate won 30% of the vote, beating the Democratic candidate. Dues-paying member have passed the 20,000 mark, the highest level since 2005. (See the Libertarian Party’s take on the outcome here.)

Among other signs of progress, the Libertarian Party now has presidential ballot access in 37 states — more states than after any election in the party’s history. Ballot access means the party’s presidential candidate in 2020 will automatically qualify to run in those states without the necessity of accumulating enough signatures to qualify. The $760,000 it cost the Libertarians to get on the ballots of all 50 states this year may be pocket change to Republicans and Democrats, but it looms large for an independent party.

Libertarians made progress in Virginia, too. Libertarian Jessica Abbott won 59% of the vote in a nonpartisan race for Virginia Beach City Council. Noting that city spending has increased 90% over the past decade while median household income has remained flat, she opposed a proposed $343 million light rail project in the city. As a certified flood insurance agent, she also promised to use her expertise to help Virginia Beach cope with coastal flooding.

Another Virginia Beach Libertarian, Robert Dean, lost the race but won a healthy 41% of the vote.

Libertarians face a challenge in running a candidate for statewide office next year. Virginia has one of the toughest ballot-access laws in the country, a provision that helps cement into place the dominance of the Republican-Democratic duopoly. To become “recognized,” a party must win at least 10% of the vote in a statewide race. Democrats and Republicans have no difficulty reaching that threshhold, so Democratic and Republican candidates get free ballot access. By contrast, Libertarians (and any other independent or third-party candidate) must acquire 10,000 signatures.

As a practical matter, third-party candidates must get more than 10,000 because the signatures must be verified by state electoral authorities, and it is common for a significant percentage to be thrown out. A rule-of-thumb cost to hire signature gatherers is about $2.50 per sign-up. That translates into potential expenditures of $25,000. Again, that is pocket money for Democrats and Republicans but a hurdle for Libertarians. Robert Sarvis, who won 6.5% of the vote in the 2013 gubernatorial election, making him the most successful Libertarian Party candidate in Virginia history, spent only $220,000 on his entire campaign. (Terry McAuliffe spent $38 million.)

The movement to reform partisan gerrymandering of Virginia’s electoral districts has gained big momentum in recent years. Virginians who value increased competition in the political realm should support reform of ballot access as well.

No Simple Answers about Illegal Voting

Illegal voting does occur in Virginia. But it's not clear how much.

Yes, Virginia, illegal voting by non-citizens does occur here. The practice may be widespread…. or not. We don’t know for sure. Photo credit: Virginian-Pilot.

President-elect Donald Trump blasted out another of his notorious tweets three days ago, claiming that he would have won a majority of votes in the 2016 election were it not for “serious voter fraud” in Virginia and other states. “Why isn’t the media reporting on this?” he asked. “Serious bias – big problem!”

National TV networks and other prestigious media outlets counter-attacked, describing the tweets as “baseless” and backed by “zero evidence.” NPR traced his “unfounded claim” to the conspiracy-minded Info Wars website and radio show, which used “flawed evidence” in reporting that three million people voted illegally. The sum total of the reporting has been to imply that not only is Trump’s claim without merit but that voting fraud occurs on such an insignificant scale as to be electorally meaningless.

Trump’s insistence that he would have won the popular vote had two million people not voted illegally is a huuuge stretch. However, the national media has not distinguished itself in debunking the charge. Pillars of the news establishment have abandoned any pretense of objectivity. Indeed, their unhinged reaction lends credence to Trump’s charge that they are guilty of serious bias.

The fact is, there is credible evidence that illegal voting does occur on a fairly large scale. Media pundits quoting other media pundits in an endless loop does not constitute proof otherwise.

The first body of evidence comes from Jesse T. Richman, Gulshan A. Chattha and David C. Earnest, professors at Old Dominion University and George Mason University. Writing in a 2014 edition of Electoral Studies, they drew upon data from an internet-based survey compiled as part of the 2008 and 2010 Cooperative Congressional Election Studies. The survey sample was robust:  32,800 in 2008 and 54,00 in 2010. Unlike other voter surveys, this study did not filter out the responses of non-citizens.

Extrapolating from the survey results, the authors concluded that “the proportion of non-citizens who voted in 2008 was less than fifteen percent, but significantly greater than zero.” In 2010, “more than three percent of non-citizens reported voting.”

Given statistical margins of error and other uncertainties, there is no way to quantify an exact number of non-citizen voters. The authors give a range of between 33,000 nationally on the low end and 2.8 million on the high end. (I’m not certain where Trump got his data, but he might well have seized upon the authors’ high-end estimate. Using that number without stating the caveats and qualifiers might justly be characterized as reckless. But it is not “baseless.”)

Despite the uncertainties, Richman, Chattha and Earnest said that non-citizen votes could have influenced some electoral outcomes in 2008. For instance, presidential election results in North Carolina were so close that a mere 5.1% turnout of non-citizens could have given Barack Obama his 14,177-vote margin of victory. By contrast, Obama’s margin in Virginia was so wide that it would have required 85% of non-citizens voting — an improbably large percentage — to have handed him a victory.

A second body of evidence comes from a 2016 study by the Public Interest Legal Foundation. PILF documented — as in, it provided documentary evidence, not statistical inference — of 1,046 non-citizens registered to vote in Virginia who were subsequently removed from the voter rolls. The authors also documented that these non-citizens accounted for nearly 200 ballots cast.

The numbers sound negligible but they were based on responses from eight jurisdictions accounting for only 16% of the state’s population. Extrapolating statewide, the number of ballots cast could well have exceeded 1,200 and the number of improper registrations 6,000. Extrapolating nationally, we could be talking 50,000 votes and 240,000 registrations.

Admittedly, there are dangers in extrapolating those numbers. We don’t know how representative those eight Virginia jurisdictions are of national patterns. On the other hand, one can argue that these numbers under-represent the extent of illegal voting because they reflect only non-citizens who were identified and removed from voter rolls. The figures do not include non-citizens whose illegal registrations were never caught.

All studies of electoral fraud are based on imperfect data and assumptions that can be challenged. There is a fuzzy halo of uncertainty around any estimate. But it is patently wrong to say that there is “zero evidence” that wide-scale illegal voting is occurring.

Tweeting claims casually scooped up from the Internet does not project the gravitas we expect of our president-elect. But shrill denunciations emanating from national news organizations are no more credible. The truth is, illegal voting does occur but it’s impossible to pinpoint exactly how much. Unless Trump and the media do better, the public will learn to trust neither.

Update: Turns out that Jesse Richman has opined on this very question. His verdict: There is no way that non-citizen votes could account for Clinton’s winning margin in the popular vote. But his commentary suggests that he believes voting by non-citizens still occurs.

Voting Happenstance… Or Enemy Action?

Voting booths in Portsmouth. Photo credit: Virginian-Pilot

Voting booths in Portsmouth. Photo credit: Virginian-Pilot

My sister Mary Bacon walked into the Precinct 101 voting station at the St. James Armenian Church in Richmond around 7:45 a.m. today. She was working through her ballot when a woman in the voting booth next to her exclaimed, “Hey, half my ballot is filled out!”

The two-sided paper ballot, which had state and local races on the second page, had all the local races marked. The woman complained, the local electoral volunteers gave her a new ballot, and that was that. No one else voiced a similar problem while Mary was in the room, and no one got exercised about the incident.

Except Mary. “I was stunned,” she told me. “I’ve never seen anything like that.”

She called the Richmond registrar’s office to lodge a complaint, or pursue whatever procedure would get the incident on record. The receptionist told her that there was nothing she could do. There were no mechanisms to file a complaint. The precinct manager would take care of it.

In all likelihood, the incident was a fluke. If you want to tamper with the election, you don’t do it by slipping filled-out ballots to voters who, like the woman in Precinct 101, would raise a hue and cry.

But who knows for sure? Mary didn’t think to ask which candidates were marked on the ballot. Given the intensity of the City of Richmond mayor’s race, it would be interesting to know which mayoral candidate had been pre-selected. If anyone was playing hanky-panky with the electoral process, that would be the first place I’d look.

If anyone else has witnessed something like this, let me know. As Auric Goldfinger told James Bond, “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action.”

— JAB