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Tension over election integrity erupts in Virginia House of Delegates

The Virginia Capitol in April.
The Virginia Capitol in April. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

RICHMOND — Partisan tension over election integrity finally erupted in the House of Delegates on Friday after simmering for weeks in the background.

Del. Marcus B. Simon (D-Fairfax) touched it off with a simple but provocative message for Republicans who have raised questions about the security of Virginia’s elections laws: “Please cut it out.”

The impeachment trial of former president Donald Trump was winding down in Washington as he spoke, and Simon reminded other House members of the chaos and bloodshed that wracked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 over false charges that the presidential election was “stolen.”

“Stop pushing these false narratives. We’ve all seen how dangerous they are,” Simon said.

But House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), who has condemned the violence at the Capitol but tiptoed carefully around the comments of a handful of his caucus who echo Trump’s unfounded complaints of fraud, seemed to push back.

Citing a recent report in Time magazine claiming that political and corporate interests worked together behind the scenes to control how the election was conducted, Gilbert said “the narratives about a stolen election, I think, have given way to something much different.”

The story presents the alleged effort as being aimed at keeping the election “free and fair, credible and uncorrupted,” but it has been widely cited on the right as evidence of a conspiracy among tech firms, the media and Democrats to control the outcome.

“It validates many of the concerns that people have, not that this election was stolen, but how it was manipulated,” Gilbert said during the online House floor session. He said Democrats had changed Virginia election laws last year and impacted the outcome of the ballot.

“The lengths to which people went to change the game had a very real impact on this election,” Gilbert said, and he questioned how much further lawmakers would be willing to go.

That provoked an angry response from Del. Marcia S. “Cia” Price (D-Newport News), a member of the Black Caucus, who said Democrats had acted to remove barriers put in place long ago to limit the participation of “certain communities.”

“We will go to great lengths to protect our democracy and make sure it’s fair and accessible,” she said.

The General Assembly’s Democratic majorities enacted several changes last year aimed at easing voter access to the polls. Signed into law by Gov. Ralph Northam (D), the changes included allowing no-excuse early voting, establishing drop boxes for collecting ballots and removing the requirement of a witness for a signature on a mailed-in ballot.

On Friday, Democrats cited a report from the state Department of Elections that found the 2020 ballot to be “the most safe, secure, and successful election in the history of the Commonwealth.”

Republicans have grumbled regularly during this year’s legislative session about the changes enacted last year and have introduced several bills — unsuccessfully — aimed at tightening voter requirements.

Only a handful of GOP lawmakers have echoed the full Trump cry of fraud. The Senate censured Sen. Amanda F. Chase (R-Chesterfield) in part for her accusations that the presidential election was stolen and that the insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol were “patriots.”

And the House stripped committee assignments from three GOP delegates who wrote a letter shortly after the election to Vice President Mike Pence asking him to nullify Virginia’s slate of presidential electors.

One of those three, Del. David A. LaRock (R-Loudoun), has persistently challenged election integrity and attended the Jan. 6 rally in Washington. LaRock has condemned the violence but has had high praise for Thomas Edward Caldwell, a Virginia resident and former FBI official who authorities say was a “key figure” in the attack on the Capitol.

LaRock told the Winchester Star on Jan. 20 that Caldwell was “a wonderful man” and said he thinks “very highly” of him, adding that he was “shocked” by Caldwell’s arrest.

On Friday, LaRock questioned why the state elections department had last year delayed several steps to ensure the voter rolls were accurate. Such actions, he said, are “certainly a reasonable basis to challenge the outcome or the integrity, I guess would be the proper term.”

“I think it’s sad to have to listen to this in the House,” said Del. Wendy Gooditis (D-Clarke). “We are listening to someone speak who not only attended the day of the riot on Jan. 6 but encouraged people to be there and actually described the day as outstanding.”

The exchange about election security was triggered over a budget amendment introduced by Gilbert that would require the state Department of Elections to purge voter rolls of deceased people every week, instead of every month, which is the current practice.

A bill requiring the same thing had passed the state Senate with bipartisan support but was tabled earlier this week in a House committee, effectively killing it.

Del. Glenn R. Davis Jr. (R-Virginia Beach) said he didn’t understand why Democrats would oppose such a step. “What is the other side so scared of if there isn’t an issue? If there is no fraud, why not take that off the table for Virginians concerned about it?” he said.

Del. Michael P. Mullin (D-Newport News) responded that “the reason that people start to have questions about this election is when elected officials raise it as a question over and over again.”

Correction: This article has been corrected to reflect that Del. David A. LaRock (R-Loudoun) attended the Jan. 6 rally in Washington, but he did not speak at the gathering.