In 2021, after Republican victories in Virginia, conservative activists were so proud of their work training poll watchers, recruiting poll workers and other attempts to subtly influence the voting system that they wrote a memo called “Virginia Model”. The memo detailed ways other states could follow Virginia’s lead in protecting so-called election integrity.
Now these activists are turning their attention to Virginia, which is a month away from an election that will decide control of the state’s narrowly divided legislature and offer both national parties clear evidence of their electoral strengths and weaknesses heading into 2024.
Every Tuesday night, Virginia Fair Elections, the group that created the “Virginia Model,” holds poll watcher training sessions in line with its mission and encourages conservative activists to register to work at the polls. The organization also organizes trainings for new members of local election committees.
The trainings are permeated by an undercurrent of distrust in the electoral system: poll observers are encouraged to arrive early and insist on being as close as possible to election workers, voters and voting machines; to check those machines; and look for any evidence of potential fraud.
“All of us are watching,” said Clara Belle Wheeler, a former member of the Virginia State Board of Elections who now leads the training, at the end of an hour-long training session for poll watchers last Tuesday, according to an audio recording of the meeting obtained by The New York Times. “I am watching.”
The group, like many others across the country, takes its cues from former President Donald J. Trump, who has continued to make baseless claims that the US election was rigged. Behind the scenes and at public events, conservative activists who share his beliefs have worked to overhaul voting laws and recruited activists and supporters to serve as poll watchers and poll workers.
In a number of counties and localities across Virginia, conservative activists have been appointed to local election boards, the bodies charged with setting early voting times and locations, leading some to move early voting locations or reduce access to weekend voting. The state also withdrew from the Electronic Registration Information Center, known as ERIC, an interstate clearinghouse for voter data that helps ensure safe elections, but became a right-wing flashpoint based on a widely debunked conspiracy theory.
Democrats and voting rights groups say the moves could have significant consequences — that seemingly small changes and pressures on the system could add up and potentially affect the outcome of an election. They worry that overly aggressive poll watchers could intimidate voters or that conspiring and meddling Trump supporters could interfere with the results.
“This is kind of like a death by 1,000 cuts, and there’s not necessarily one thing you can point to and say, ‘That’s what’s going to swing the election,'” said Aaron Mukerjee, director of voter protection for the Virginia Democratic Party. “Together, the goal is to disenfranchise enough voters to win elections.”
It is often difficult to determine whether changes to election laws or other attempts to intervene in the voting process ultimately affect the outcome. Turnout alone does not determine how many voters may have been affected. In the Trump era, changes in voting patterns have upset the long-held assumption that higher turnout helps Democrats and lower turnout helps Republicans.
And there is no evidence that Republican campaigners helped win Virginia in 2021, nor that their policies and activities necessarily benefit either party. During those elections, voter observers at 13 polling stations were observed being disruptive, according to reports filed by election workers.
Ahead of the 2021 election, activists trained by Virginia Fair Elections collected claims of fraud and filed a lawsuit challenging at least 390 ballots that were missing Social Security numbers. The lawsuit was dismissed, but conservative news outlets focused on the complaint and began claiming that the upcoming vote in Virginia would be “stolen,” as many activists believed had happened in 2020. (Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, eventually won and his the party made gains in the legislature.)
Regardless, Republican-leaning groups like Virginia Fair Elections continue to try to tighten voting laws.
Fair Elections in Virginia is administered by the Virginia Public Policy Institute, a conservative think tank that was formed in 1996 with moderate fundraising in the low six figures annually. But as the think tank shifted its focus to so-called election integrity efforts after the last presidential contest, it picked up over $508,000 in 2021, according to data maintained by ProPublica.
That money is included $125,000 grant intended for the “Virginia Fair Elections Project” of the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, a the main financier groups that spread myths about voter fraud. His board includes Cleta Mitchell, a longtime conservative lawyer who played a key role in the effort to overturn the 2020 election.
In 2021, the Virginia Fair Elections “Virginia Model” became the blueprint for the Election Integrity Network, a national coalition led by Ms. Mitchell that quickly became one of the most influential organizations seeking to change voting laws and recruit grassroots activists.
Last year, Virginia Fair Elections hosted a two-day rally conceptualized by Ms. Mitchell. The group boasted that it had trained 4,500 poll watchers and election officials, and covered 85 percent of Virginia polling places on Election Day 2021 and during the 45 days of early voting.
In August, Virginia Fair Elections held a similar meeting at the Sheraton Hotel outside Richmond. The day-long event featured 12 panel discussions, including a keynote address by Mollie Hemingway, a well-known conservative columnist. A panel discussion held immediately after lunch highlighted one front where the network has made significant gains: county election boards and registrars, who serve as the chief election officials in Virginia localities.
“The most important thing that we do, however, is the hiring and sometimes firing of the chief registrar, and I think just as critical, if not more so, is the appointment, training and potentially firing of the election officer,” John Ambrose, a Republican who serves as vice chairman of the Richmond board, he told the audience to loud applause, according to an audio recording of the panel obtained by Documented, a liberal research group, and shared with The Times.
Ms. Wheeler and the president of the Virginia Public Policy Institute did not respond to text messages seeking comment. Virginia Fair Elections did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
According to a peculiarity of Virginia law, the party of the last elected governor has an advantage in the partisan composition local election committees. After Mr. Youngkin won the governorship in 2021, statewide boards moved to 2-to-1 Republican control from 2-to-1 Democratic control.
Groups like Virginia Fair Elections worked to place the people they trained on local election boards across the state, which meant that in many places conservative priorities became policy.
At least 10 counties in Virginia, including at least four with predominantly black populations, have canceled Sunday voting for the upcoming election. Some of the 10 counties, including Richmond, Spotsylvania, Virginia Beach and Chesterfield, contain major population centers.
Sundays are popular voting days for black communities, where church-run “Souls to the Polls” events have a long history of nurturing community and helping protect against intimidation at the polls.
“Democracy is under attack, whether it’s Republican-led boards of elections in different locations reducing Sunday voting, or even closing early voting locations that were in predominantly black communities,” said Joshua Cole, a pastor and Democratic candidate for Fredericksburg Area House of Delegates. He pointed to the Mattaponi Baptist Association of Virginia, a local association of black churches, several of which are no longer able to hold Souls to the Polls events.
“Don’t take it away from Christians, especially African-American Christians, when it’s been a major issue in the community for years,” he said.
Some local election officials acknowledged that the change in party control was the main cause of the changes.
“The reason Sunday voting is no longer an option for the City of Richmond is because the political representation of our Board of Elections has changed from Democratic to Republican as of 2021,” said Katherine Cardozo-Robledo, executive assistant to the Board of Elections in Richmond, a city of about 230,000. citizen approximately 45 percent black.
Others, however, said there simply wasn’t enough demand.
“We have an election every November in Virginia, so we didn’t continue it last year,” said Mary Lynn A. Pinkerman, who oversees elections in Chesapeake, which is about 30 percent black. “Our city has approximately 176,000 voters, and when we tried after we were told buses would arrive, only 170 voters came that day. We don’t have enough demand for it in our city.”
With just a month until the polls close in Virginia, both parties are focused on the general election, but conservative activists have bigger goals in mind.
“What we’re doing is so critical,” Sheryl Stanworth, a participant in Tuesday’s training, said during the rally. “We have a presidential election to look forward to.”