MANASSAS, Va. (CN) — On Friday morning, onetime election official Michele White sat near the back of a northern Virginia courtroom by her lonesome, no attorney to represent her for a hearing on felony corruption charges.
White, 51, has been charged with corrupt conduct by an elections officer and making a false statement regarding an election, both felonies, along with neglect of duty by an elections officer, a misdemeanor. Details on the allegations against her are unclear, but it is serious business – the two attorneys bringing the case represent Virginia’s attorney general.
Once Prince William County's general registrar, White sought to delay trial until December or January. The lawyer she wishes to hire, she said, is busy.
“No ma’am,” responded Prince William County Circuit Court Judge Carroll A. Weimer Jr., who explained that if White is unable to afford an attorney, he would appoint one for her. But he won't long delay the case. The next hearing is now set for Oct. 21.
At any other time, the story might be a blip on the 24/7 news horizon. But in today’s political environment, the proceedings against White could figure into a narrative by some politicians that elections, especially ones that don't go their way, are untrustworthy.
Consider that on Sept. 9, three days after White’s indictment, Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares announced the creation of an Election Integrity Unit.
“I pledged during the 2021 campaign to work to increase transparency and strengthen confidence in our state elections. It should be easy to vote and hard to cheat," Miyares said. "The Election Integrity Unit will work to help to restore confidence in our democratic process in the Commonwealth.”
Not everyone is on board with his premise. Andrea Jackson, who has worked with Virginia Organizing to register voters, points out that the commonwealth teeters between Republican and Democrat political leaders -- and there's nothing wrong with that.
“As a person who has been doing this for a while, why do we need to restore confidence?” she asked. “The [election] process has been working.”
The Big Lie
The idea that elections are rigged – either by the people running them or by voters – picked up steam when repeated by former President Donald Trump, who has falsely stated that the 2020 election was stolen from him. To be clear, Miyares, who, like Trump is a Republican, has said that he believes Joe Biden won the presidential election.
But a spokesman for the Democratic Party of Virginia said the formation of the unit signals an embrace of Trump's "Big Lie."
Made up of 20 staffers already employed at the office, the unit is to “provide legal advice to the Department of Elections, investigate and prosecute violations of Virginia election law, work with the election community throughout the year to ensure uniformity and legality in application of election laws, and work with law enforcement to ensure legality and purity in elections,” according to a press release.
Such units in other states are raising eyebrows.
The Sunshine State's unit is called the Florida Office of Election Crimes and Security, and last month Republican Governor Ron DeSantis announced that it was involved in the arrests of 20 felons who allegedly attempted to vote despite being ineligible. Subsequently, NPR and other outlets reported that some of the individuals thought they could vote.
In Texas, the Election Integrity Unit was announced as a “dedicated group specially tasked with overseeing the 2021 election season,” and a follow-on program to the 2020 Ballot Fraud Intervention Team.
“These state officials are using their bully pulpit to intimate that there is fraud in our elections,” said Eliza Sweren-Becker, voting rights and elections counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.
The subtext of these units is that there is something criminal happening when people go out to vote.
“By and large,” Sweren-Becker said, “that’s not true at all.”
A raft of studies outlined on the Brennan Center's website show that voter fraud – and, in particular, impersonation fraud – is rare.
Even before Virginia’s Election Integrity Unit was announced, the attorney general’s office had broad jurisdiction over election law. The office serves as legal counsel to the Board and Department of Elections, said Victoria LaCivita, spokeswoman for the Miyares. In an email exchange, she characterized the new unit as a restructuring of resources.
Asked if the office used scholarship or expert advice in planning the unit, LaCivita said that Miyares relied on a team within his office. They reviewed the Virginia code, U.S. election law and issues involving elections.
The unit's impact remains to be seen, according to Eric Olsen, the current general registrar and director of elections for Prince William County. It could be supportive, he conceded. But along with others interviewed for this story, Olsen voiced concerns that integrity units could have a chilling effect on people who work or volunteer in elections.
Jackson, of Virginia Organizing, put it bluntly: “Who in their right mind would want to volunteer and do these jobs when you might have citizens mad at you and you’re just doing your job?”
But there’s another question: Will the talk of election fraud, along with the simple fact that Virginia's Election Integrity Unit is within the office of the state’s top legal officer, plant just enough doubt or even fear to keep voters away?
Virginia’s attorney general does not intend to sow doubt, according to LaCivita. Miyares is the son of an immigrant, she wrote, adding that he wants every Virginian to have full confidence in the election system.
It's possible the worries could be unwarranted. After all, similar concerns once surfaced about voter ID laws. But using extensive data gathered during a 10-year period ending in 2018, researchers from Harvard and the MIT found that voter ID laws produced “no negative effect on registration or turnout, overall or for any group defined by race, gender, age, or party affiliation.”
Instead, there was a different impact: The likelihood that non-white voters were contacted by a campaign increased, the researchers found, “suggesting that parties’ mobilization might have offset modest effects of the laws on the participation of ethnic minorities.”
American voters, it turns out, are not so easily discouraged.
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