By Noble Pearson
On September 9, 2022, Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares announced the creation of a new Election Integrity Unit (EIU) in the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) to “investigate and prosecute violations of Virginia election law” and “to ensure legality and purity in elections.” This new team, made up of more than 20 attorneys, investigators, and paralegals from the OAG reportedly requires no new funds and aims to increase confidence in Virginia’s elections. While in a vacuum increased election security is desirable, this announcement comes against the backdrop of persistent mistrust of elections, especially from contingents of Republican support, stemming from conspiracy theories surrounding the 2020 presidential election. Democrats in Virginia quickly criticized the move as embracing lies, and Scott Surovell of the Virginia Senate joked that next Miyares would create a “Ghost Busting Unit that will hunt for ghosts and ghouls across the Commonwealth.” Jokes aside, questions remain about how an EIU might function and what, if any, success the people of Virginia can expect. To help answer that question, let us turn our attention to another state, Arizona, which created a similar unit not long ago.
In 2019, the Arizona Legislature appropriated $530,000 to the Arizona Attorney General’s Office to begin an EIU with four full time employees. It was created under similar circumstances to its Virginia counterpart, as it followed 2018 midterm elections that saw major wins for Democrats in Arizona that led then-President Trump to comment that ballots had appeared “out of the wilderness” for Democrat Kyrsten Sinema who beat Trump-endorsed Republican Martha McSally in the U.S. Senate race. Critics claimed the EIU was simply a response by the Republican legislature to Democrat successes and that it was designed to help enforce laws limiting voter participation. The pertinent question for Virginia is, with such a backdrop of partisan disagreement and criticism, has the Arizona EIU been successful in protecting Arizona elections since 2019?
To answer this question, a good place to start is the website for the Arizona OAG, which contains basic information about its EIU, including a link to a full list of AGO criminal prosecutions related to voter fraud since 2010. This list contains thirty-six cases of prosecutions, twenty of which dated 2019 or later. Reasons for these prosecutions vary, from State v. Tracey Kay McKee, which involved illegal mailing of a dead relative’s ballot, to State v. Kenneth Russell Nelson, involving an inmate illegally voting while in Pima County Jail. From a neutral perspective, while there have been some minor cases of voter fraud prosecuted, it is unclear that the Arizona EIU should be considered a success.
Recent critics looking back at the three years of the Arizona EIU suggest that there has been only a minor increase in prosecutions, with sixteen voter fraud cases prosecuted in the six years before the EIU and only twenty prosecuted in the three years since its creation. They point to the fact that after investigating thousands of cases with a renewed focus on voter fraud, only twenty cases have been prosecuted by the OAG in a state of more than four million voters. Supporters, though, point to the fact that the group is fulfilling its mission of supporting a fair election process. But what does this all mean for Virginia?
First, it is clear that Virginia’s EIU is driven by a distrust of elections, particularly in the Republican Party, much like the context that led to Arizona’s EIU. There are differences, though. Arizona’s EIU was legislatively created with its own budget of around $500,000, while the Virginia EIU stems from a decision by AG Miyares and reportedly will require no additional funding. Arizona’s EIU contained only four members, while Virginia’s will be comprised of a group of more than twenty. Without a doubt, questions remain about the implementation of the Virginia EIU. In Arizona, a four-person team managed to prosecute twenty cases in three years on a limited budget; can a bigger team in Virginia that is not receiving any new funding be expected to better that output? Even if it did, are there any discernable benchmarks for success? None seem to have been announced so far. The bottom line from Arizona is that an EIU without measurable goals and only an uncertain vision of making voting fairer has achieved only lackluster results and faint party line support. Regardless of the context behind its creation, the Virginia EIU would do well to learn from the mixed results in Arizona to better enable its own success. Otherwise, Virginia can expect a handful of minor voter fraud prosecutions and no tangible increase in public perception of election security, nothing more.