WASHINGTON — As Republicans across the country insist more laws are needed to protect election integrity, Virginia Republicans have found themselves in a bit of a voter ID quagmire.
At issue is a decision to quietly allow voters to participate in their complicated primary process even if they left blank parts of the application, including required fields that asked for their state-issued voter ID number and a signature, according to documents and an audio recording of a call obtained exclusively by NBC News.
Republicans in the state say the nominating contest has been a logistical nightmare.
And it comes as the Republican Party has largely embraced President Donald Trump's baseless rallying cry that rampant fraud cost him the election. He has insisted that every signature on a mailed ballot in Georgia be verified, for instance.
Now, Virginia Republicans are facing questions from their own party about their enforcement of voter security measures — fueled by their decision to run their convention themselves, which required them to design their own applications and approval systems.
“It's 'Lord of the Flies' in the Virginia GOP right now,” said former Republican Congressman Denver Riggleman, who lost a state Republican convention last year that he and allies felt was rigged against him after he came under criticism because he officiated a same-sex wedding. "It's all very ironic."
Adding to the party's complications, votes at the convention will be weighted by city or county. And the process is ranked-choice, meaning delegates will rank their preferences among the seven candidates on the ballot, which will then be counted by hand in a central location under armed guard, which is expected to take several days.
“There's still a lot of confusion among the everyday Republican voter,” said Tim Parrish, the chairman of the Prince William County GOP. "I probably get about 100 questions, no exaggeration, a day."
Behind closed doors, Republican officials have been fighting for weeks about the decision to accept applications to participate in the convention that lack a voter ID number or a signature.
“How on earth do you accept an application that's not signed?” Clara Belle Wheeler, chair of the Virginia Republican Party's credentials committee asked during an April 11 meeting of the committee, according to an audio recording obtained by NBC News.
"I don't know how anybody — and I don't care who it is — thinks you can submit an application form that's not signed. That's unheard of,” Wheeler continued. “I don't care whether you're ordering tulip bulbs from the bulb company, or you're signing your voter registration application. It's got to be signed.”
Several members of the committee agreed.
“We're all yelling about what Democrats are not requiring to happen and we're doing the same thing here. It's crazy,” said Jill Cook, the secretary of the Virginia GOP.
Under party rules, the final decision should be made with input from the state party's general counsel, but he had to recuse himself because he works for one of the campaigns.
During the meeting, Wheeler texted Chris Marston, the Virginia Republican Party's general counsel, to ask for guidance. He quickly replied to say he had been asked by the party chairman not to participate, since he is on the payroll of Pete Snyder, one of the leading candidates in the race, who has hired many operatives involved in the process.
"So where does that leave us?" Cook asked.
"We don't have a legal counsel,” Wheeler replied.
In a contrast in simplicity, Virginia Democrats will go to the polls on June 8 and simply elect a nominee in a primary. Their voters will have to provide a government-issued ID, as required by state law.
Republicans, however, opted to hold a convention — a decision in part because Virginia voters don't register with a party, so primaries are open, and the GOP has long argued Democrats were voting in their contests to try to disrupt their elections.
But to comply with Covid-19 rules against large gatherings, the GOP is having an “unassembled convention" that will take place at dozens of locations across the commonwealth and 53,000 delegates are expected to be able to cast a ballot without leaving their car.
To be a delegate, voters had to fill out and sign a simple form created by the party with their name and contact info, as well as a voter ID number that was assigned to them when they registered to vote. The signature line and voter ID number fields have asterisks next to them. A note on the form explains, “An asterisk '*' denotes required information.”
But many people don’t know their voter ID, or registration, number — a random nine-digit number that a voter can find by querying a state election website using other personal information, including the last four digits of their Social Security number.
Some local parties started accepting forms without a voter ID number or signature. And so, eventually, the state party allowed them to approve them regardless.
“We received specific guidance from the chair of the credentials committee, who would make final decisions on whether someone's application would be accepted or not, that the only two things that are absolutely required are the voter name and the voter address,” said Nicholas Proffitt, the chairman of the Republican Party of Chesapeake and a member of the party’s state central committee.
“So if they didn't have a voter number they will be accepted regardless," he added. “I do wish they had enforced needing a signature, because it kind of opens the door to a campaign signing up a bunch of people without their knowledge."
Well-organized campaigns did lots of the leg work of getting people registered.
Some campaigns collected registration forms from supporters and could add the voter ID number on voters' behalf and so could local party chairs, who accepted the forms, since both have easy access to the state's voter database.
“I didn't know mine either, I had to look it up,” said Parrish. “We have endeavored since the beginning of things to make it as easy as possible for people to participate.”
But many still got added to the convention roster without their voter ID number, according to a certified delegate list obtained by NBC News. More than 5,700 of the 53,000 delegates — over 10 percent — did not have a voter ID number listed, according to the document, which was compiled by the state party.
A spokesperson for the Virginia Republican Party did not respond to a request for comment, other than to ask how NBC News obtained the delegate list. Wheeler, Cook and Snyder's campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Photo IDs will still be required when voters show up to their convention site, but some campaigns have expressed concern about the integrity of the convention, even if every voter produces an ID.
“Of course every Republican should provide their voter ID and signature before they vote in the May 8 convention — that’s what the RPV delegate form requires,” said a spokesperson for Glenn Youngkin, another of the Republican gubernatorial candidates.
Firebrand state Sen. Amanda Chase, a candidate for governor who has described herself as “Trump in heels” and been disavowed by leaders of her own party for comments they called “idiotic,” told supporters not to trust the process.
"DO NOT TRUST THE PARTY TO DELIVER ACCURATE RESULTS,” she wrote in a fundraising email to supporters. “Who should you go to for the proper results? Me and my campaign! My campaign will be monitoring the voting and data entry on election night. If they are accurate, we will tell you. If they are not, I will be prepared to sue in court to force a public count.”
Chase, Youngkin and another candidate, former Virginia House Speaker Kirk Cox, wrote a joint letter to the party’s chairman last week raising concerns about its ballot security and counting plans, which has gone through multiple revisions in the final weeks before the convention.
“The Republican Party — the party of election integrity — must lead by example as it prepares to conduct its May 8 nominating convention,” the candidates wrote.
Watching from the sidelines, Democrats see it as the the GOP's chickens coming home to roost.
Democrats may also, however, be taking a page out of Trump's playbook, echoing a criticism he repeatedly levied when the 2020 Iowa Democratic caucuses turned out to be a debacle.
"If they can’t even run an open, transparent primary process, how can they possibly govern Virginia?” said Manuel Bonder, spokesperson for the Virginia Democratic Party.