AG’s Power Under Review
Senate To Vote On Bell’s Bill Addressing Election Fraud
Posted: February 19, 2013
HARRISONBURG — The Senate could vote today on Del. Rob Bell’s legislation giving the Virginia attorney general direct authority to investigate reports of election fraud.
Bell, R-Albemarle, is seeking the Republican nomination for attorney general this year against Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg. His bill easily passed the GOP-controlled House of Delegates two weeks ago with bipartisan support.
It advanced out of the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee, but just barely, succeeding on a party-line 8-7 vote last week, with all Democrats opposing it.
The full Senate then pushed a vote on the bill back a day on Monday, possibly signaling that an amendment to the legislation is in the works.
The 40-member chamber is split evenly between Republicans and Democrats. Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling would cast the tie-breaking vote, if needed.
The bill gives the attorney general the power to investigate election fraud reports without first getting permission from the state Board of Elections, local electoral board or a local prosecutor.
“The electoral board is not a law enforcement group or grand jury,” Bell said. “I think that a complaint brought to his attention should be investigated directly.”
Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor, has lobbied for such authority since the fall. In October, the state board directed him to review a case in Harrisonburg in which eight completed registration forms were thrown into a trash bin.
Originally, Sen. Don McEachin, D-Henrico, asked Cuccinelli to investigate. The senator was angered when the attorney general responded by saying his “hands were tied” because he needed permission to launch a probe.
McEachin, who lost a bid for attorney general in 2001, was one of the Senate committee members to vote against Bell’s bill. He could not be reached for comment Monday, but Democrats are concerned that Bell’s bill is too broad in the powers it gives an attorney general.
Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Hot Springs, said he voted against the bill in committee because it “inhibits” a local commonwealth’s attorney from doing his or her job.
“The attorney general is not a prosecutor. The prosecutor is the commonwealth’s attorney,” Deeds said. “[The bill is] usurping the authority of the local constitutional officer.”
In the Harrisonburg case, the Rockingham County Sheriff’s Office eventually arrested Colin Small, 23, of Phoenixville, Pa., and charged him with 13 misdemeanors and felonies in connection with the forms that were thrown away.
At the time of the allegations, Small worked in Harrisonburg for Pinpoint, an independent contractor hired by the Republican Party of Virginia to conduct voter registration drives.
A preliminary hearing in that case is set for April 2 in Rockingham County General District Court.
The Senate also delayed a vote on legislation Monday that would regulate groups such as Pinpoint. The bill, sponsored by Del. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake, says those groups must register with the state Board of Elections or local registrar’s offices before signing up voters.
No stipulations exist now in Virginia, meaning anyone can obtain a voter registration application and seek voters under the premise that the forms will be turned in to registrars.
A vote on the bill, which unanimously passed the House, is possible today.
Contact Preston Knight at 574-6272 or firstname.lastname@example.org