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E-signatures for absentee ballots spark debate at elections board
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E-signatures for absentee ballots spark debate at elections board

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A partisan battle over absentee voting broke out Tuesday at a State Board of Elections meeting, with Republicans warning that a new policy has opened the door to electronic voter fraud and Democrats dismissing the charge as unverified and overblown.

The concern was raised Tuesday evening at the end of what will likely be the last elections board meeting before the Nov. 3 General Assembly elections, when control of the state Senate will be up for grabs.

The debate centered on a policy that allows voters to use electronically typed signatures to apply for absentee ballots. The policy was approved in May after a rules inquiry from Speaker of the House William J. Howell, R-Stafford, who was facing a spirited primary challenge from Susan B. Stimpson.

The elections board agreed that the issue merited further discussion but decided against making any major rule changes because absentee voting is underway.

Several Republican officials from Fairfax County said they have seen an influx of electronically signed absentee applications coming from the same IP address. When voters were contacted about applications deemed suspicious, the officials said, some voters said they had not requested a ballot.

“Clearly that person did not even do the simple thing, as poor as it is, of typing in their name,” said Keith Damon, elections chairman for the Fairfax County Republican Committee. “Someone else typed in their name, which is clearly illegal.”

Kevin Reynolds, an aide to Sen. Thomas A. Garrett Jr., R-Buckingham, said that without further regulation, applications “could be done by one person on a computer in a basement.”

Others dismissed the accusation as a misrepresentation of a policy that allows campaigns on both sides to use widely accepted digital technology to get more people involved in the democratic process.

“This isn’t new, crazy stuff,” said Del. Scott A. Surovell, D-Fairfax, who added that his campaign has used digital methods to sign up more than 850 people who wouldn’t otherwise vote. “And I think a lot of what we’re hearing today is paranoia and people chasing ghosts that do not exist.”

“These Republicans want one set of rules as Speaker Howell tries to mobilize his supporters — and now, as absentee voting begins, are demanding an entirely different set of rules apply when Democrats do the same,” said Georgina Cannan, co-chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Virginia’s volunteer Voter Protection Council.

Asked if Howell agreed with the concerns raised Tuesday, spokesman Matt Moran said the Howell campaign sought guidance on existing law and “followed that guidance.”

The electronic applications require other personal identifying information, such as Social Security numbers. Edgardo Cortés, the state elections commissioner, called it “the TurboTax approach to filling out the forms.”

Critics said the system is ripe for abuse because personal information is too easily obtained. They called for the state to step in and require that more be done to verify that ballots were sent to a legitimate voter, such as requiring a written signature that could be checked against the returned ballot.

Clara Belle Wheeler, the lone Republican on the three-person elections board, said she was under the impression the policy was intended to allow electronic captures of cursive signatures on touchscreen tablets or devices with a stylus. Allowing typed signatures, she said, “opens up a can of worms.”

“We need to try to get all these worms corralled before they’re all over the place,” Wheeler said. She added that the issue is not partisan but about “the integrity of elections in Virginia.”

James B. Alcorn, the board chairman, cautioned against making a substantive policy change Tuesday because the item was not on the meeting agenda.

“I agree it’s an issue worth revisiting,” Alcorn said. “I don’t deny that for a second.”

If there are specific allegations that merit further investigation, Alcorn said, they should be brought forward.

“If you’re aware of some place that is being nefarious with this,” he said, “then let’s get that out front and let’s get that to a commonwealth’s attorney.”

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