RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Virginia Elections Commissioner Chris Piper praised the changes that expanded voter access during his four-year tenure, saying Thursday he’s disappointed he won’t remain in the role but optimistic because “the system in place is strong.”
In the time Piper has been Virginia’s top election official, the commonwealth repealed its voter photo ID law, opened up 45 days of no-excuse absentee voting and made ballot drop-off boxes permanent. Virginia even passed its own version of the Voting Rights Act — a first in the South.
“In the four years that I’ve been here, we went from an excuse-based system for absentee voting to no excuse. We have seen record numbers of absentee voting, but more importantly, in every year that I have been commissioner, we have seen record turnout for that kind of election,” Piper said in an interview.
“And we did that because we were able to open access to the ballot. I’m incredibly proud of that. We also showed that you can open access, make it easier for eligible voters to vote, and still have competitive elections and still have safe and secure elections.”
With these rules in place, Gov. Glenn Youngkin won last November with more votes than any other gubernatorial candidate in Virginia’s history and Republicans seized control of the Virginia House of Delegates.
But those laws were passed when the state was under full Democratic control and Republicans have used their new majority in the Virginia House to advance measures to undo many of the changes.
On party-line votes, the House passed legislation to require voters to show a photo ID at the polls, repeal the permanent list of absentee voters, eliminate ballot drop-off boxes and limit in-person early voting to two weeks before an election.
GOP state lawmakers pushing for these changes shared their concerns about election security and skepticism over the electoral process.
“These measures provide first, an abundant opportunity to exercise the sacred right to vote while doing due diligence to ensure that the voters who vote are eligible to do so,” Del. Lee Ware (R-Powhatan) told a House subcommittee when presenting his bill to reinstate Virginia’s photo ID law. He added that his bill would protect the election process from being “diluted by those who might be involved in mischief in voting.”
Virginia Senate Democrats say they will reject these efforts in committee, as they did when Republicans tried to get similar bills through the chamber. But an ABC News/Ipsos poll conducted in late December does show people’s faith in the integrity of the U.S. electoral system has dropped since the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
Democrats have pointed to former President Donald Trump and other Republicans who falsely claim the 2020 presidential election was “stolen” for sowing doubt in the country’s electoral system.
Piper didn’t answer directly when asked whether politicians bear the brunt of the blame for the growing skepticism, saying he believes the questions and concerns give election administrators a chance to inform voters about the work they do to ensure secure elections.
“If I point a finger at someone, I got three pointing right back at me. The fact of the matter is, the time for blame and frustration, there’s never a good time for that. We were presented with the situation, take the opportunity to take the steps to reinvigorate the country’s faith in how we conduct elections,” he said.
“If I had one wish, it’s not just for elections, even for me, is to not make assumptions. To realize that I am uninformed and for more people to recognize that unless you’re an expert in what you’re talking about you’re uninformed about the situation. And even the experts can disagree.”
Piper did shoot down the idea that a “forensic audit” of the state’s electoral process would be a better alternative to the risk-limiting audit that Virginia’s Department of Elections conducts. A proposal to make way for post-election forensic audits, championed by state Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Chesterfield), was killed by Democrats in committee.
“I challenge anybody to define what a forensic audit is. I haven’t ever seen a definition of it. What happened in Arizona, there was no actual process,” Piper told 8News. “No chain of custody. It was kind of an improvised look into the election. It didn’t follow any standards or procedures that I’m aware of.”
Sen. Chase told the Senate committee she introduced the measure after her constituents told her they went to the polls to vote but their ballot had already been cast.
“The bill provides that an audit includes a review of all materials, equipment, and procedures used during any part of the election, including the ballots, the poll books, the voting machines, and the routers,” Chase said before the committee rejected the legislation.
Chase, who has called herself “Trump in heels,” visited Arizona in June to tour the facility where the Republican-led “forensic audit” was being conducted. Experts discredited the effort, which did not reveal evidence of widespread fraud or change the fact that President Joe Biden beat Trump in the state.
“A risk-limiting audit is proven. It’s been shown over and over again. It’s been tested a million times and it shows that we can uncover issues with an election and do it in a way that’s far more manageable and less resource intensive, which translates to costs less money,” Piper said Thursday.
Piper did speak in favor of legislation backed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin that would expand and split Virginia’s State Board of Elections evenly among Democratic and Republican appointees. The measure would also strip the governor’s authority to pick the commissioner of the Department of Elections and give it to the board.
Piper, who will leave his role on March 11 after Gov. Youngkin decided not to reappoint him, called the effort a “very positive step in the commonwealth” that would help depoliticize the Department of Elections even more.
“This is just one more step to show the citizens of the commonwealth that this is a truly apolitical group of people who are helping put on safe and secure elections and I think that’s a promising development,” he said.
Calling his time as Virginia’s elections chief “the role of a lifetime,” Piper lauded the work of the general registrars, poll workers and others that helped administer elections across the commonwealth.
“I would have loved to have continued to serve. I really love my staff. I think I work with some of the best people in the world. They are incredibly dedicated, passionate. I’m sad that I don’t get that opportunity,” Piper told 8News. “That said, I do think the staff is great and I think the system in place is strong. And I think that Virginia’s set up for successful elections no matter who is in my chair. It’s not about me, it’s about the system itself and I think we’re in good shape.”
Piper said he promised to work hand in hand with the Youngkin administration to ensure a smooth transition once he leaves the post on March 11.