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Misinformation top concern for local registrars heading into election season

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Mallory Noe-Payne/Radio IQ
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Virginia’s Attorney General recently announced the formation of an Election Integrity Unit. A group, the AG’s office says, that will provide legal advice to the Department of Elections and investigate violations of state elections law.

A couple local election officials say their priority leading into Election Day, though, is battling misinformation. In fact, Richmond City registrar Keith Balmer recently created and hired a new position targeted at just that – a communications specialist.

“I feel like the biggest weapon I have as a registrar to push back against claims of fraud and a lot of misinformation is to communicate to the public – and to do it aggressively,” Balmer said during a recent interview.

Balmer has worked in elections for more than a decade. Since 2020 he says combating misinformation has become increasingly important.

“What we’re seeing in election offices nationwide, appears to be a concerted effort to get people to distrust election officials,” he said.

Fredericksburg registrar Jessica Atkinson agrees, voter education is a top priority in her office as well. She says she’s constantly getting people sending her news articles about election misinformation.

“We get calls from people who watch Youtube videos, who have heard things on Youtube or on other new sources,” she says – adding that she’s always happy to take people’s questions. However, she does wish state officials were doing more to help.

“Because they are the leader, they do set the tone for elections,” Atkinson said. “And we do a lot as a society of telling people to register to vote. But we don’t tell them why it’s important.”

The state Department of Elections website does have a website on voter education with a ‘Mythbusters’ page. But both registrars say local officials have learned to rely on one another, more than state leaders, for guidance and ideas when it comes to tackling misinformation.

For his part, Balmer is withholding judgment on the Attorney General’s new election integrity task force until he sees what they produce. Atkinson says she hopes the group turns to those who actually work in and run elections for input.

Voter fraud in Virginia is exceedingly rare. According to a database run by The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank, there was a single criminal conviction of voter fraud in 2021. More than three million votes were cast in the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial election, plus in additional elections throughout the year.

The single case of fraud, as documented by the Heritage Foundation, was a man who first voted absentee and then tried to cast a second ballot. An election worker successfully stopped the man, a “self-described ‘unabashed conservative’” from voting twice.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Mallory Noe-Payne is Radio IQ's Richmond reporter and bureau chief. She's covered policy and politics from the state capital since 2016. She was a 2020-2021 recipient of the Fulbright Young Journalist Award. She spent a year in Munich, Germany researching memory, justice, and how a society can collectively confront its sins. Her Virginia-based coverage of home healthcare workers, voting rights, and Richmond’s Slave Trail have won national news awards.