The computer error — which mixed up similarly named localities such as Fairfax County and the city of Fairfax — prompted a flurry of phone calls and emails to local election offices from voters convinced that they were the targets of a mail-in ballot fraud scheme.
“Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have thought twice about it, but it could have been sent by the other party,” said Hank Wolf, 86, a Falls Church resident worried about whether the application he received Wednesday would impact his ability to vote in Fairfax County for former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee. “It could have been sent by Trump.”
The Center for Voter Information is actually nonpartisan, affiliated with the Voter Participation Center, another nonprofit working to increase voter participation. If anything, both organizations appear to be more aligned with efforts to defeat the president than with his allies.
They were founded by Page Gardner, a Democratic strategist who has worked on several presidential and congressional election campaigns, according to the groups’ websites. The chief executive of the Center for Voter Information is Tom Lopach, another veteran Democratic strategist. The organization raised $19 million in 2018 to increase voter participation among unmarried women, people of color and millennials, according to the center’s most recent federal tax filing.
Lopach said the center wants to help voters secure mail-in ballots in hopes of keeping voter participation high in November amid worries about the coronavirus pandemic. So far, he said, 800,000 voters nationwide have applied for absentee ballots through the effort. The error in Virginia happened because the software used to send the applications to registered voters did not know to distinguish between counties and cities with the same name.
“We regret deeply the confusion caused in this case and we take full responsibility,” Lopach said, adding that his organization plans to pay for the postage it will take for local election officials to send the applications to the right place.
“Voting by mail remains safe and secure and, in this pandemic, it is increasingly the safest way to participate in our democracy,” he said.
In 2018, the group generated anguish in Virginia after it mailed voter registration forms to 140,000 already registered voters. The forms came with letters that said, incorrectly, that the recipients were not registered, which the group attributed to its reliance on commercial databases to send registration forms.
“Just about every mailing that they’ve sent out has been a significant drain on us trying to correct misinformation,” said Deirdre Martin, deputy registrar in the city of Roanoke, in southwestern Virginia.
Voters there received ballot applications with return envelopes addressed to the Roanoke County elections office, while county voters got applications directing them to the city office.
In past election years, the errors may have caused just a ripple of concern, election officials said. But this year, with fears about covid-19 pushing more people to vote by mail and Trump relentlessly attacking the security of that system, the impact is magnified.
“The timing could not be worse,” said Brenda F. Cabrera, the general registrar in the city of Fairfax, whose three-person staff spent most of Wednesday assuring anxious voters that the applications they mailed to the city would be redirected to Fairfax County’s elections office.
With 433,000 applications mailed to Fairfax County voters and another 9,000 to city of Fairfax voters, all containing incorrect addresses on the return envelopes, Cabrera said her office has been the most affected.
“It’s really unfortunate that it has caused so much angst at a time when everyone is concerned about the mail,” Cabrera said.
Part of the anxiety lies in the fact that the applications arrived already filled out with the recipient’s information, sometimes with errors included, several voters who contacted The Washington Post said.
Also, the return address on the outside envelope appears to be the site of a United Parcel Service store in the city of Richmond.
Gary R. Bachula said he initially welcomed the sight of the application that landed in his mailbox in McLean because he had already been planning to vote by absentee ballot — for Biden.
But, just as he was about to send back the pre-filled application, he realized where it would be sent — to Fairfax City, rather than the county — and held off.
Then, one of his neighbors began alerting others on the cul-de-sac block to what appeared to be an attempt at fraud. Another neighbor ran to her mailbox to pull out the filled-out application she had just put there for the mail carrier to retrieve.
Before long, neighborhood chat groups and social media posts were buzzing with angry declarations that somebody was out to rig the election.
“We’re living in paranoid times. Who knows what would have happened if I mailed it back in?” Bachula said. “In the best of all worlds, it would find its way back to where it should be. But it also could have been destroyed, rejected or ripped up. Who knows?”
Edgardo Cortés, an elections security expert at the Brennan Center for Justice and the former commissioner of Virginia’s Department of Elections, said the Center for Voter Information does not appear to have broken any laws.
Mailers with faulty information are common during election season, Cortés said, adding that voters can avoid confusion by applying for an absentee ballot online, either through the state or their local elections office.
“The big thing to remember here is that they didn’t come from the state and they didn’t come from the local elections office,” he said. “In terms of people’s faith in the system, the elections offices here are still doing what they can to get things right.”
Katherine Hanley, secretary of Fairfax County’s elections board, said the applications sent out by the center will not affect the status of any voter who has already filed for an absentee ballot. But sorting through those applications for potential errors will take up time that could be better spent preparing for the election.
“The concern is that some of them have misinformation,” Hanley said. “I’m glad this is happening in August and not October.”
Anna Cloeter, the general registrar in Roanoke County, said her office is also sorting through the mailers to ensure they end up in the right place. After repeated attempts in the past to get the Voter Participation Center and its affiliates to improve their system for mailers, Cloeter said, her frustrated staff is also directing angry voters to call or email the nonprofit.
“They don’t ever seem to listen to the registrar community that they cause trouble for,” Cloeter said. “Maybe they’ll listen to the voters they’re causing trouble for.”