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Read more VPM News coverage of the historic 2023 elections in Virginia.

Virginia announces new, post-ERIC voter data agreements

Susan Beals in a blue cardigan sitting at the Board of Elections meeting.
Shaban Athuman
VPM News File
Susan Beals, Virginia Department of Elections commissioner, attends an Aug. 15 meeting at the Pocahontas Building in Richmond.

The state says it’s taking steps toward more reliable voter rolls but some voting experts and Democrats disagree.

The Virginia Department of Elections announced Wednesday it signed agreements with five states and the District of Columbia to share voter data. The move comes after the commonwealth quit a multistate partnership that is the target of right-wing conspiracy theories.

The department is also using obituaries to remove dead voters from rolls, updating its process for removing people convicted of felonies and using a private vendor to send mailers to registered voters who may have moved. The new process resulted in 234,736 voter registration cancellations over the last fiscal year, up from 76,166 the previous year.

This year’s total, however, is not an outlier: In its 2019 report, for example, the department said it had deactivated more than 230,000 voters who were deceased or marked as inactive.

In an annual report released Wednesday, ELECT said it had made “unprecedented strides in improving the accuracy of its voter list.” Some voting experts and Democrats, meanwhile, said the changes will lead to less reliable voter rolls and could result in the removal of eligible voters.

Commissioner of Elections Susan Beals announced Virginia was leaving the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC, in May. Though she’d publicly defended the partnership as recently as April, Beals cited concerns about privacy and costs without providing details. Past VPM News reporting showed Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s office was directly involved in discussions leading up to the state's departure from ERIC.

Since then, Beals has signed individual agreements with neighboring states like Tennessee and West Virginia, as well as more distant ones like Georgia, Ohio and South Carolina.

But David Becker, a national elections expert who helped develop ERIC, said signing these one-off agreements will result in less reliable, less secure and more expensive data. Department staff would be left using manual processes to match the information they receive — often a name and a birthday — to voter files, resulting in a “ton of false positives.”

ERIC, by contrast, uses data from a broader range of sources and more states — including DMV records — and provides a centralized report every 60 days.

Becker, who currently serves as executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation & Research, said the new process also raised questions about data security. He said it wasn’t clear how states would protect voter data that left their oversight, and the decentralized nature of the communication left more potential points of breaches compared to ERIC.

“It leads to a data security nightmare,” Becker said.

The department signed a roughly $27,000 agreement with broker Melissa Data Corp. to provide some of the change-of-address information it previously received from ERIC.

ERIC also set up an automated process for removing people from voter rolls who’ve had their voting rights restored, but were convicted of a new felony. Melissa Data identified 10,558 people in Virginia who it said fit that description. State elections officials have also aggressively moved to remove dead voters from the rolls, culling more than 73,000 names over the last year.

State Sen. Jennifer Boysko (D–Fairfax), who sits on the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections, said the use of obituaries in that process was problematic, given the possibility of voters sharing a common name. And she said the department’s policies compounded concerns she’d had after mishaps in last year’s elections, including an IT glitch that affected voter registration data and mailings being sent to the wrong addresses.

“I think that they're not putting enough care and attention into making certain that voters are getting their fair right to the ballot,” Boysko said.

Youngkin’s spokesperson, Macaulay Porter, said in an email that the governor “is committed to restoring Virginians’ faith in our elections and improving processes.” And she dismissed concerns the changes would hurt turnout.

“The governor continually encourages Virginians to vote and vote early,” Porter said.

Some of the department’s actions are less controversial. It’s stepped up mailings for voters who’ve filed change-of-address forms to twice a year, up from once a year, responding to a 2018 recommendation from the General Assembly’s research arm, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission. Voters who don’t respond are changed to “inactive” status but are only fully removed from the rolls if they skip two federal election cycles.

The report also provided insight into Youngkin’s rights restoration process for people convicted of a felony, a system that’s come under growing scrutiny. It notes that ELECT received 2,667 records of individuals who had their rights restored between Sept. 1, 2022, and Aug. 16, 2023.

That’s about one-third of the 7,882 people from a similar period the year before, which included the end of Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s term, as well as the beginning of Youngkin’s time in office, when he approved rights at a faster pace.

Voters can check their current registration status at ELECT’s website. Early voting begins Friday. The deadline to register in this November’s elections is Oct. 16. Voters can cast a provisional ballot through Election Day, which is Nov. 7.

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