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Typo leaves Democratic Virginia Senate candidate in limbo

A person wearing a striped shirt stands at a voting booth in a room with cement floors and large windows
Crixell Matthews
VPM News File
People cast their ballots on Election Day in 2020.

Trudy Berry argues there’s still time for the Board of Elections to allow her on the ballot.

A Democrat running for a state Senate seat in Southside Virginia is considering mounting a write-in campaign after an email typo kept her off the ballot.

Trudy Berry was always a long-shot candidate for the heavily rural and Republican Senate District 9 seat, which stretches from Danville to the outskirts of Farmville.

But her odds dimmed further when Danville Democratic official Clem Oliver left off a .gov from an email submitting Berry’s paperwork to the state on April 10, according to a letter to the board from the Democratic Party of Virginia. The error meant state officials didn’t receive Berry’s paperwork ahead of their April 11 deadline.

Berry’s attorney, Liz Burneson, told the State Board of Elections on Tuesday that Oliver was ill from cancer when she sent the email. Oliver died in mid-July.

“Roughly 155,000 voters in Senate District 9 will have no choice on the ballot in November, because of a three-letter typo made by a woman who was gravely ill,” Burneson said.

The board didn’t take up Berry’s petition to add her name to the ballot against state Sen. Frank Ruff (R–Mecklenburg), a move that Berry said in an email Wednesday left her frustrated and angry. Berry questioned why she would be treated differently than past instances where the board had granted forgiveness to candidates from both parties, including Del. Dave LaRock(R–Loudoun) in 2021 as well as Del. Clint Jenkins (D–Suffolk) and Del. Terry Kilgore (R–Scott) in 2019. Berry called on the board to act ahead of the printing of ballots.

“Will they go with the precedent they set, or will they penalize me and disenfranchise voters over something that they acknowledged in previous cases was out of [candidates’] control?” Berry said.

Berry worried that mounting a write-in campaign would amount to letting Democratic Party officials — whom she also blames for the lapse, but who spoke in her defense — as well as the board “off the hook.” At the same time, Berry said she was considering it as an option and that filing a lawsuit against the state was likely off the table because of the expense it would incur.

Board chair John O’Bannon, a Republican who previously served in the House of Delegates, did signal on Tuesday that he was open to a request from the Democratic Party of Virginia to discuss legislation aimed at addressing the bipartisan paperwork confusion.

“I think there are checks and balances that we can look at and certainly try to make better,” O’Bannon said.

However, O’Bannon also indicated he might be less willing than his Democratic predecessor, Bob Brink, to grant relief to candidates for lapses.

“I will just remind everybody that the very first meeting this year, the state board, we admonished every candidate to be sure and close the loop and don't accept that things went through,” O’Bannon said.

Del. Marcus Simon (D–Fairfax) said Wednesday he was disappointed the board appeared to be taking such a firm stance on paperwork. He said the General Assembly could explore centralizing and streamlining paperwork requirements with the Department of Elections or state parties rather than local party offices, which are often little more than “ad hoc committees.”

“It's a complicated and confusing process, and it doesn’t need to be that way,” Simon said.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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