Police in Harrisonburg, Va. are combing through voter-registration forms linked to a private group founded by a prominent local Democrat after an incident in which authorities discovered that 19 dead Virginians were registered to vote in the Shenandoah Valley city.
Harrisonburg Police Lt. Roger Knott said Wednesday that investigators are looking for irregularities in registration forms connected to a group called HarrisonburgVOTES. Knott said the investigation, which began in August, is focused on possible instances of forgery, identity theft and voter fraud. He said police have identified a “sole suspect,” but he declined to name the person, and no charges have been filed in the case.
Knott said police have teamed with the FBI on the investigation and hope to conclude it soon.
The case has stirred controversy in Richmond. Republican lawmakers noted it last week as an example of the threat that voter fraud poses to the election system, but Democrats said the questionable registrations were detected early and that no fraudulent ballots were cast.
Former Harrisonburg mayor Joe Fitzgerald has blamed a James Madison University student for the incident, according to local news reports.
Fitzgerald, a Democratic Party activist who served as mayor from 2002 to 2004, was listed as a founder of HarrisonburgVOTES in information the group posted on the Internet. The group describes itself as nonpartisan.
In mid-September, the Daily News-Record of Harrisonburg quoted Fitzgerald as saying that the student, who worked for the group, was responsible for a set of registration applications filed in the name of dead people. Fitzgerald said he fired the student and contacted police in August whenhe learned about the alleged actions.
“Who the hell knows what his motivations were?” Fitzgerald told the news outlet. Reached by telephone Wednesday, Fitzger ald confirmed the accuracy of the quotes but declined to elaborate. “I really can’t say anything else about it,” he said.
Fitzgerald works for JMU as a technology coordinator.
Efforts to contact the student through email and telephone messages were unsuccessful, and The Washington Post is not identifying him because he has not been charged with a crime.
JMU spokesman Bill Wyatt said the student is a senior at the 21,000-student public university.
“We know about this secondhand,” Wyatt said. “We’ve not been contacted by any law enforcement agencies about the investigation. . . . This story really has nothing to do with the university other than the subject of the investigation is a student who was working for an unaffiliated organization.”
The spokesman said the university has sponsored many voter registration efforts recently, in part because JMU this year was given its own on-campus voting precinct for the first time.
“We have many safeguards in place and work closely with our local registrar,” he said. “None of those efforts are under scrutiny by the board of elections.”
The leadership of the College Democrats at JMU did not respond to emailed requests for comment. Patrick Stott, chairman of the JMU College Republicans, said the episode raises concerns.
“This alleged incident undermines confidence in the integrity of our democracy and our system of elections,” said Stott, 21, of Midlothian, Va. “It really is a perfect example of why Voter ID laws are necessary. If it’s as easy as it seems to be to register dead or nonexistent voters, the ID requirement is all that would keep someone from casting those votes.”
Laura Vozzella and Gregory S. Schneider in Richmond contributed to this report.