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Under a Democratic-controlled legislature and former Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, Virginia repealed its old photo ID requirements ahead of the 2020 presidential election, started registering voters automatically through the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles and opened absentee ballots to any registered voter, without requiring a specific reason or excuse. 

With a legislature whose control is now split between the two parties, Virginia is unlikely to agree on major new restrictions or reforms in the next year.

However, Republican Attorney General Jason Miyares, elected in an upset along with Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin last November, is pursuing executive action that echoes disenfranchisement tactics of right-wing leaders such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Similar to a special police force DeSantis created to pursue allegations of voter fraud, Miyares has dedicated 20 people in the Virginia attorney general’s office to an “election integrity unit” with a similar mission.

No evidence of significant voter fraud has been found in Virginia — something Miyares’ own office has confirmed — or in Florida, or in any other state.

“By creating a task force to investigate a fantasy offense, he deepens the conviction of fantasists that the offense must therefore exist — otherwise, why would the state’s most senior law enforcement official muster such resources to investigate it?” The Washington Post wrote in an editorial criticizing the move.

Privacy vs. transparency in voter list fight

Virginia follows a growing trend of state legislatures addressing election security issues through a partisan lens. Republicans echo former President Donald Trump’s false claims about fraud in the 2020 election, while Democrats express concerns about protecting the integrity of results and the safety of local election officials and voters who’ve been harassed by them.

About this series

This project looks at the state of voting access, voting rights and inequities in political representation in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.

One of the bills, SB 698, aims to protect voter privacy, but opponents believe this measure is not transparent. 

The bill, introduced by Democrat Creigh Deeds, prohibited publishing Virginia’s voter list on the Internet or giving the voter list to a third party to publish it. SB 698 was tested recently when a Republican-backed group, the Voter Reference Foundation, published the state’s voter list.

The Virginia Department of Elections sent a letter to the foundation requesting the information be removed from the site for violating SB 698. The information was later removed. 

The organization published voter rolls from dozens of states. The foundation claims to publish the information in order to ensure “transparent, accurate and fair” elections throughout the country. People can search the site by voter name or address, and the results list voting history and political affiliation. 

Even though voter rolls are public information in many states, there are concerns that having the information so readily available online could lead to unintended consequences like campaign harassment or stalking. 

“Some of our readers have written to me and said, I’m nervous, you know, there’s some guy that’s been stalking me,” said ProPublica reporter Megan O’Matz in an interview with NPR. “Or people have failed marriages that may have been violent and they are domestic abuse victims. So we do have serious concerns about that.”

The VRF, part of the conservative Restoration PAC, was founded by Doug Truax, former Republican U.S. Senate candidate from Illinois.  

“Our system of government is based upon citizen participation,” says the description of the VRF on the Restoration PAC’s website. “We believe the people, in effect, own this data and have a legal right to see it in an understandable and transparent form.” 

In a statement to The Federalist, the VRF threatened “legal action” against states like Virginia that don’t publish voter lists. 

“He’s on the wrong side of history here,” Truax wrote about fellow Republican Youngkin. “People are demanding more transparency in their elections, not less.” 

Formerly incarcerated face voting barriers

In 2021, former Gov. Northam signed an executive order restoring voting rights to all Virginia citizens who are no longer incarcerated. 

Virginia is one of few states that permanently strips voting rights from people convicted of a felony. Only the governor has the power to restore those rights. 

In May, Younkin announced he would continue to regularly restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated people. 

“I am encouraged that over 3,400 Virginians will take this critical first step towards vibrant futures as citizens with full civil rights,” said Youngkin in a press release. “Individuals with their rights restored come from every walk of life and are eager to provide for themselves, their families and put the past behind them for a better tomorrow.”

Since 2016, more than 195,000 formerly incarcerated Virginians have had their voting rights restored, according to data from The Sentencing Project

Virginians looking to restore their voting rights can apply on the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s website. 

Delegate Charniele Herring introduced HB416 this year, a constitutional amendment that would allow Virginians to vote for the automatic restoration of civil rights, including the right to vote, when a person is no longer incarcerated. The proposed measure died in committee.

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Hayley Starshak is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune...