RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — Virginia Democrats have filed suit against an elections official in Richmond for not handing over a list of rejected absentee ballots, which the party hopes to use to notify voters so they can file a corrected ballot by next week’s deadline.
The Democrats claim other cities and counties across the state have complied with the same request, but Richmond Registrar Kirk Showalter has refused.
According to the complaint filed Monday evening in Richmond City Circuit Court, Virginia Democratic Party Chair Susan Swecker emailed Showalter in early October to get a copy of the data, including voters' names and addresses, reasons for ballot disqualification and a history of attempts to contact the voter to remedy the issue.
The complaint includes screengrabs from Showalter showing the data exists, but she allegedly denied that there were any responsive records 17 days after the request was made before producing limited information Showalter characterized as inaccurate.
Swecker and the Democratic Party of Virginia argue that if they don’t receive the records by the Nov. 6 deadline to fix ballot issues, they won’t be able to help hundreds of Richmond residents make sure their votes are counted.
“The ballot data will lose almost all practical value if not obtained with enough time to contact eligible Virginia voters,” the complaint states. “Moreover, hundreds of eligible, registered voters will be disenfranchised because their ballots will not be cured.”
In an emailed statement, Swecker said the party’s attempt to get the records is part of a “voter protection program to resolve issues with absentee ballots.”
“Registrars across the commonwealth have been very helpful in sharing information with us to aid in that process,” she said. “The Richmond registrar is a lone exception, and has been inexplicably stonewalling our efforts to resolve issues with voters' absentee ballots.”
Showalter did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit by press time.
State law clearly defines what constitutes an invalid ballot, including a lack of personal information, and the complaint points to another state law that requires rolls of absentee voters to be maintained and available to the public.
Changes to election laws signed by Democratic Governor Ralph Northam in September in the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic further clarify the process by which a voter can fix their ballot.
“The general registrar may issue a new absentee ballot to the voter if necessary and shall preserve the first ballot with other spoiled ballots,” the new law states. “The voter shall be entitled to make such necessary corrections before noon on the third day after the election, and his ballot shall then be counted.”
The changes also include a requirement that the registrar’s office notify voters of the problem within three days of receiving an invalid ballot.
Megan Rhyne with the Virginia Coalition for Open Government said Freedom of Information Act laws are clear and require a prompt response to records requests.
“FOIA is built on a leap of faith that an agency will turn over everything that is responsive to a request, whether within the initial five days or the additional seven,” Rhyne said in an email, referring to statutory deadlines.
Virginia’s new Democratic majority altered a number of election laws in early 2020, ahead of the pandemic, but it appears Virginians are grateful for the changes: Over 2 million people have already voted either in person or by mail since early voting opened in mid-September. Just under 4 million Virginians voted in the 2016 election, when President Donald Trump lost the state by more than 5 percentage points.
State Senator Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, helped author some of the changes in election law and said she hopes Showalter will comply with the request so that “any Richmond resident who had an issue with an absentee ballot has an opportunity to remedy that problem.”
“It’s critical that every Virginian’s vote is counted in this election,” she added.Follow @@BradKutner
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