The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Youngkin administration faults aging Virginia elections data system

Bob Meurer waits for voters in the Democratic primary election at the Lucketts Community Center in June in Lucketts, Va. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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correction

A previous version of this article incorrectly reported that paper ballots are scanned into the Virginia Election Registration and Information System. Ballots are not scanned into the system, but paper documents are. This version has been corrected.

RICHMOND — The administration of Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) says it will shut down the state’s elections registration and data system for a few days over each of the next six weeks because the aging network is far behind on a planned update.

Problems with the circa-2007 system — known as the Virginia Election Registration and Information System, or VERIS — have been documented since at least 2018, when a legislative oversight committee recommended considering a replacement. The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission faulted the system for having “longstanding reliability problems that continue to slow its processing speed during periods of peak usage.”

The General Assembly set aside $2 million in 2020 to begin the process of selecting a new system, and elections officials said last year that they intended to choose a vendor by the end of 2021. The new system, which was projected to cost as much as $29 million, was to have operated side-by-side with the old one for most of 2022 before the transition could be complete.

But no contract was awarded. Youngkin’s office said Thursday that “mismanagement of deadlines resulted in a project that is critically behind schedule.”

Youngkin recently replaced former elections commissioner Chris Piper, who was appointed by former governor Ralph Northam (D), with Susan Beals, a Republican and former member of the elections board in Chesterfield County.

On Thursday, Piper said the delay in awarding a contract was a consequence of trying to make the best decision for the state. “There was a desire to get it done this summer, but better to get it right than meet any deadline,” he said. “A strong working database that can last the commonwealth a decade or more is the goal.”

Officials in the Youngkin administration, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing procurement, said the goal is to get the contract awarded as soon as possible.

In the meantime, the state will take the VERIS system offline every Friday through Sunday for the next six weeks for maintenance and to update it with the state’s new political districts. The Supreme Court of Virginia redrew political boundaries last year after a bipartisan redistricting commission did not get the job done, and Youngkin administration officials said the VERIS system can’t absorb the new data without being periodically shut down.

The shutdowns could interrupt some activities of registrars, such as updating voter rolls, but should not cause lasting problems, the Youngkin officials said.

The officials said they were not suggesting any problems with past elections because of VERIS. The 2018 legislative report said the system “provides a broad range of functions, including those related to voter registration, geographic alignment of streets with precincts and districts, and recording and transmitting election results on election night.”

But the review faulted VERIS for lacking “functionality,” saying its crude mapping capability makes it difficult for registrars to assign voters to precincts, paper documents must be scanned in small batches “to prevent system outages,” and the system is not intuitive to use, “making it more likely that registrars will enter information incorrectly.”

Youngkin officials said they expect the system to be functional for this fall’s congressional and local elections, and noted that even if the new system had been selected on schedule, it was not expected to handle this year’s elections on its own.

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