Virginia Officials Dispute Media Accounts of 'Widespread' Voter Problems

As NewsBusters reported on Tuesday, the media have been all over allegations that Republicans are using a variety of tactics to intimidate Democrat voters in Virginia. Information obtained from the Virginia State Board of Elections (VSBE) suggests that these reports are exaggerations based upon information released by the James Webb for Senate campaign.

Furthermore, there is evidence that liberal bloggers were used to disseminate this material, in particular Daily Kos.

It appears that this firestorm began Monday when the Webb for Senate campaign created a press release that was e-mailed to a variety of recipients (complete text here). Oddly, this release doesn’t appear to be at the Webb for Senate website, and is not materializing in any LexisNexis searches. It does, however, appear at some blogs; more on that later.

The press release began (emphasis mine):

Sec. of Virginia State Board of Elections Finds Widespread Incidents of Voter Suppression

Threats of Incarceration, Changed Polling Locations, and Fliers to "Skip the Election"

Over the past several days, voters throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia have filed complaints of incidents aimed at suppressing voter turn out in heavily Democratic and African American neighborhoods. Today, the Secretary of the Virginia State Board of Elections Jean Jensen concluded that the incidents appear widespread and deliberate.

The release cited some specific examples of irregularities, and suggested that these were “heavy trends,” "widespread, and “deliberate.” Furthermore, the way it was crafted, it appeared that the Secretary of the VSBE, Jean R. Jensen, was responsible for all of the information contained in the document. Sadly, that wasn’t the case.

Fortunately, after this press release was disseminated, it was sent to a representative of the VSBE, at which point, Jensen issued the following alert to voters (emphasis mine):

The Virginia State Board of Elections has received complaints of several instances of alleged voter intimidation and suppression in multiple localities in the Commonwealth. The State Board has been in contact with the Virginia Attorney General and the United States Department of Justice who will investigate all credible complaints.

Secretary Jean Jensen said, “Voters should not be intimidated or deceived by phone messages purporting to be from election officials. Any communication from federal, state, or local election officials will always be in written form clearly identifying the official source.”

As you can see, Jensen’s office didn’t state that these instances were “widespread,” “deliberate,” or indicative of “heavy trends.” In fact, at the time Jensen issued her alert, there were only two formal complaints lodged. This is confirmed by a CNN.com report early Monday evening (emphasis mine):

(CNN) -- Virginia election officials expressed concern Monday over reports of deceptive phone calls made to voters ahead of Tuesday's midterm elections, but were hesitant to launch an immediate investigation for fear of politicizing the vote.

James Alcorn, policy advisor for the Virginia State Board of Elections, said the board had notified the U.S. Department of Justice and the state's attorney general's office, but that neither state nor federal officials were likely to "get involved" until after the election. The immediate response to the allegations, he said, was voter education.

Alcorn said the state board had received a "handful" of calls and complaints about alleged deceptive phone calls made to potential voters. Jean Jensen, secretary of the board, said it had received two notarized complaints, one from a voter in Arlington and the second from a man in North Hampton. (Posted 8:42 p.m.)

NewsBusters has obtained the affidavits of both complainants. They can be seen here.

Shortly before CNN.com posted this blurb at its website, Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos posted the following at his (emphasis mine):

More from the Webb campaign (from an email):

Widespread Calls, Allegedly from "Webb Volunteers," Telling Voters that their Polling Location has Changed.

A couple of examples:

a. Norman Cox has been registered to vote in the same location in Arlington since 1972. Someone from a 406 number (in Montana) called to tell him that his polling place has changed. [Note: The Webb Campaign is NOT making any such phone calls.] Cox said he believed that he was being mislead and the caller hung up.

b. Peter Baumann in Cape Charles, VA (North Hampton) got a similar call from a "Webb volunteer" saying his polling location had changed. He said: No, I'm a poll worker and I know where I vote. The girl--who was calling from California--hung up.

The Secretary of the State Board of Elections Jean Jensen has logged dozens of similar calls, finding heavy trends in Accomack County (middle peninsula) and Essex County (outer peninsula) [as reported by the counties' registrars].

3) Fliers in Buckingham County Say "SKIP THIS ELECTION" (paid for by the RNC) have caused many in the African American community to call the Board of Elections to see if the election is still on. The full tag line says: "SKIP THIS ELECTION... (and then in smaller print): Don't Let the Tax and Spend Liberals Win."

4) Voter Machine Problems.

a. On many ballots in heavily Democratic neighborhoods, Jim's name is cut off. The ballots say: "James H. (Jim)" with no Webb.

b. New reports that ballots in Essex County have Jim's name split on 2 pages. The "James H (Jim)" on one page, "Webb" on the next.

c. Reports of voting machines in Isle of White that do not provide a clear image of the ballot, making voting a challenge.

It appears that Moulitsas was on the Webb campaign’s e-mail list, for the above is verbatim from the press release in question.

Up to this point, with the exception of some papers in Virginia – which were reporting from the VSBE press release and not the Webb for Senate one – this issue had been largely ignored by the national press. This changed at 10AM eastern time when MSNBC filed the following report (video here, emphasis mine):

NORAH O’DONNELL: We begin this hour in Virginia where the hotly contested Senate race between Sen. George Allen and Democratic challenger Jim Webb now has a new wrinkle. The FBI is reportedly looking into possible voter intimidation in that state. Hardball’s David Shuster is in Richmond has the very latest. David, what can you tell us about this FBI investigation? What are the democrats alleging that the Republicans are doing?

DAVID SHUSTER: Well, let’s start with the Secretary of State as far as the Board of Elections is concerned. Jean Jensen who runs the board of elections confirms that the FBI is now investigating allegations of voter intimidation and voter suppression. State officials yesterday, after getting information initially from Democrats, said that they were able to document dozens of phone calls that were made to heavily Democratic precincts in which the people who were receiving the calls were either given incorrect information about polling sites, misdirected about election laws. And so the FBI has now interviewed state officials and state officials say the investigation continues. The Democrats, particularly the Webb campaign, they have issued a written statement saying that Republicans are behind an orchestrated effort to suppress and intimidate Democratic voters. Republicans say they don’t know anything about the investigation. A Republican official says that the GOP and the Allen campaign are focused on mobilizing voters and have not discouraged anyone from going to the polls. But as if investigation continues, slors, this is just the latest chapter in what has been a very, very nasty senate campaign here in Virginia.

Thus began a bit of a media frenzy on this issue, as CNN started reporting this news, as did some wire services. In fact, prior to the MSNBC report, a Google news search on this issue produced a handful of results. Now, it’s at 131 reports.

What a difference MSNBC makes.

Finally, an interesting subtext on this issue is the blogs that posted the Webb for Senate press release appeared to make it look like this was something more official, conceivably from VSBE, and neglected to include the final bit of information – “Paid for by James Webb for U.S. Senate.” Here’s a good example at VoteTrustUSA.

Matthew Sheffield assisted with this piece.

Noel Sheppard's picture