October 6, 2023
Laura Vozzella
The Washington Post

Youngkin’s elections team says it mistakenly took 270 voters off Va. rolls

RICHMOND — The Youngkin administration said Friday that it erroneously kickedat least 270 Virginians off the voter rolls — a problem that sparked calls for a federal investigation and surfaced with early voting already underway in pivotal General Assembly races.

Elections Commissioner Susan Beals said officials were directing relevant registrars around the state to reinstate the voters and send them new voting cards.

“We’re doing additional analysis to ensure every single voter who was affected is reinstated,” she said. Macaulay Porter, spokeswoman for Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R), added that the number could go up during that review, but it was not expected to change much.

The problem affected voters who were convicted of felonies, had their voting rights restored and then went on to violate the terms of their probation. A quirk in the state’s computer system counted the probation violations as new felonies that disqualified them from voting.

While the number of mistakenly disenfranchised voters was far smaller than initially feared, that did little to quiet critics, including Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.), who on Friday afternoon reiterated a call for a federal investigation, which he’d urged a day earlier in an interview with Axios.

“There must be an immediate investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice into how this happened in the run-up to a very consequential election next month,” he said in a written statement to The Washington Post. He linked the problem to “concerted, widespread efforts by many members of the Republican Party to engage in voter suppression tactics all across the country.”

Porter did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Scott’s call for a probe and claims about voter suppression.

Elections officials acknowledged the error more than a week after the public radio station VPM flagged a problem with the process with a report on an Arlington County man removed from the rolls after a probation violation.

The administration announced in December that it scrubbed 10,588 voters from the rolls as it sought to root out anyone not entitled to cast a ballot. Elections officials acknowledged Tuesday that some of them should not have been removed, but they were unable to determine how many until Friday.

As it turned out, only 270 of the removals were made in error, Beals said.

Even the smaller-than-expected number raised concerns for some legislators ahead of Nov. 7 elections, when all 140 seats in the closely divided state House and Senate will be on the ballot. Just a handful of races in both chambers will decide if Youngkin has the power to enact a conservative agenda that includes banning abortion after 15 weeks, with some exceptions.

“In 2017, control of the Virginia House of Delegates was decided by drawing a film canister [with a candidate’s name] out of a bowl because the election was tied,” said Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax), referring to the random drawing that allowed Republicans to hang on to power in the lower chamber by the narrowest of margins. “So every one of these actions is critical in today’s Virginia electoral environment.”

The problem is the latest of several mistakes and intentional policy decisions that Democrats have seized on to question the administration’s competency and intentions when it comes to elections management.

In October 2022, just ahead of the midterm congressional elections, the elections department belatedly sent two batches of “motor voter” registration applications to local registrars for last-minute processing — 107,000 in the first batch, 149,000 in the second. The department blamed computer problems with the state’s long-troubled voter registration system, which is known as VERIS and dates to about 2007.

“Whether there’s malice behind it or not, there’s a real negative impact on voters,” said Edgardo Cortés, a fellow with the Institute for Responsive Government, a think tank focused on government efficiency. “We’re in the middle of early voting,” he said. “It’s a very tricky time to say, ‘You can’t participate,’ and then, ‘Oops, we were mistaken here.’”

Cortés was elections commissioner under Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), who lost a comeback bid to Youngkin in 2021.

Late last year, elections officials said they found 10,588 people on the state’s voter rolls who were ineligible to vote because of felony convictions. The discovery and subsequent removal of those voters seemed like a triumph for Youngkin, who had won the Executive Mansion in 2021 on a promise to improve the state’s “election integrity.”

At the time, elections officials chalked the problem up to a quirk they’d uncovered in the state’s aging elections software — one that allowed people who’d committed a felony, had their voting rights restored by the governor and then committed a second felony, to remain on the rolls.

“The original computer code written for the restoration of rights process did not provide for the instance in which an individual might be reconvicted of a felony following the restoration of their rights,” the department announced.

Once the code was updated, however, the system failed to differentiate between probation violations committed by voters who’d had their rights restored and entirely new felonies.

Virginia permanently disenfranchises anyone convicted of a felony. A handful of other states limit voting access for those convicted of certain felonies, such as those involving violence. Virginia does not differentiate.

The only way someone convicted of a felony in Virginia can win back their rights is to petition the governor. Youngkin’s three immediate predecessors — one Republican, two Democrats — took steps to automatically restore rights in at least some cases once their sentences were complete.

Youngkin reverted to a stricter policy, requiring each person to file an application that the administration considers on a case-by-case basis, greatly reducing the number of people who regain the right to vote.

Kay Coles James, who was secretary of the commonwealth when the new policy came to light in March, said in a statement at the time that Youngkin “firmly believes in the importance of second chances. … Virginians trust the Governor and his Administration to consider each person individually and take into consideration the unique elements of each situation, practicing grace for those who need it and ensuring public safety for our community and families.”

Youngkin has the right, as governor, to set stricter standards for rights restoration, said Sheba Williams, executive director of Nolef Turns, a prisoner reentry nonprofit that takes its name from “felon” spelled backward. But her group has been involved with a pending federal lawsuit challenging how his policy is being carried out — with no publicly disclosed criteria for rights restoration.

“We don’t have the luxury of time because there’s an election coming up in November,” she said. “And we want to make sure everybody who is eligible can access that right.”