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Controversial Former Virginia Election Head Gets Congressional Hearing

The controversial former head of Virginia’s Department of Elections got a Congressional hearing on Wednesday as President Trump’s nominee to the Election Assistance Committee.

Donald Palmer told senators that in his old job, he worked to improve training, update technology, and share best practices.

“I will approach the job as a commissioner very similar to the way I approached as a state election official,” he said.

That worries Democrats like Anna Scholl, executive director of Progress Virginia. “He repeatedly disregarded safeguards to ensure that every eligible voter has a say,” she said. “I honestly can’t think of anyone who is less qualified to oversee the security of America’s elections.”

As former Governor Bob McDonnell’s appointment to head the department, Donald Palmer earned infamy among Democrats for what they say was a deliberate effort to disenfranchise voters.

In 2013, Palmer oversaw the removal of almost 40,000 people from Virginia’s voter rolls. He said they were already registered in other states, but some registrars said the list was full of errors. Democrats sued to prevent further purges, and a Chesterfield registrar counted an error rate of 17 percent on the list he was provided by the state.

But a U.S. District Court judge sided against the Democrats, saying they presented “no evidence of any individual who has been deprived of their right to vote.” The department eventually issued updated guidance for registrars on using the data from Crosscheck, a cross-state data hub that critics say is riddled with errors. 

A Brennan Center for Justice report this year nonetheless called the purges “illegal.”

Palmer’s office also sent out letters mistakenly telling 125,000 registered voters they were being purged because they’d moved out of state. None of the voters were removed from the rolls.

Those topics didn’t come up at Wednesday’s hearing. But Palmer did say he was focused on eliminating all voter fraud, noting that “from a micro-level, fraud does exist.”

"When candidates come to us, they don’t ask us, ‘Was it a little bit of fraud or was there lot of fraud?’” he said. “They want to have clean and pure elections.”

Palmer was recommended for the role by Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, according to Axios. He previously served as an election official in Florida and worked in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. He would be one of three members on the committee.

Senator Mark Warner sits on the committee but was not in attendance at the hearing due to a funeral, according to his press secretary, Nelly Decker. “He’s monitoring this nomination very closely,” she said.

bpaviour@ideastations.org