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JLARC Reveals The Not-So-Secret Secret
By Stephen J. Rossie

Square2017 imageRichmond – The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, the General Assembly’s investigative arm, last week issued one of several anticipated reports it has been charged with compiling at the legislature’s request. While results of its probe into the Department of Elections were shocking, they were not unexpected.

Its finding — that former Governor Terry McAuliffe politicized the department to the point of "open support for one party” — normally would have stirred the political version of a hurricane except that the department’s operatives’ actions have been open and obvious for some time. The non-partisan agency’s mandate to ensure fair and accurate voter registration and election procedures now, however, has been exposed officially and to the public at large.

According to Jamie Bitz, a chief legislative analyst for JLARC, the commission’s investigation — which included interviews with local voter registrars and department staff — found "a perception of political bias that was reflected in decisions about policies and certain agency operations.” Bitz later told the Richmond Times- Dispatch that former agency leaders directed staff to help Democrat groups avoid campaign finance and advertising laws and regulations.

Bitz also told the Times-Dispatch that "the previous deputy commissioner at the agency very openly stated to a number of people, including one high-level elections official in Virginia, that one of her key responsibilities was to help Hilary Clinton be elected president.”

Of course, that was the entire raison d’etre for McAuliffe’s candidacy to begin with — to deliver swing state Virginia to the Clintons. His 2013 campaign was managed and funded primarily with Clinton influence. Another non-surprise was his refusal to cooperate with the Trump Administration commission on voter fraud. Now, with Hillary no longer viable, McAuliffe is turning to his own ambitions as he stumped for Democrats in Iowa last week.

Another strike against McAuliffe, whose legacy continues to haunt the commonwealth, came from an unexpected source — Chris Piper, the new department head who was appointed in January by Governor Ralph Northam. He told the committee that staff actions reflect the top of the pyramid, that if it sees the department’s leadership acting in a non-partisan way, it will as well. But if the leadership pushes in one direction, that is where the staff goes and apparently went.

House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) said the bias was "devastating” and that "If there’s any group that has to have integrity, if there’s any group that has to be nonbiased, it’s got to be this group.”

JLARC recommended to lawmakers a number of possible remedies, including eliminating two of the three gubernatorial appointments to the elections Department and replacing them with an operations director not politically appointed. With the number of close House elections in 2017 — at least six decided by about 300 votes or less, including a tie that was determined by a drawing — it’s no secret that among the first bills to be considered during the 2018 session will deal with Department of Elections reform — if it survives more McAuliffelike partisanship.

Stephen J. (Steve) Rossie is a Richmond-based public and government relations’ consultant. He has been a General Assembly lobbyist since 2006 and has written about Virginia government since 2007.