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

Virginia voter removals raise concerns among rights groups

People stand at individual white voting booths while casting their ballots.
Crixell Matthews
VPM News File
State Sen. Scott Surovell (D–Fairfax), an attorney and senior member of the Democratic caucus, is calling for The Virginia Department of Elections to review who was removed from voter rolls to ensure they weren’t eliminated for a technical probation violation.

At least one person was removed from the rolls after having their rights restored, raising fears of a broader problem.

The Virginia Department of Elections removed 10,558 people from the state’s voter rolls over the past eight months who previously had their rights restored, raising concerns from advocates who say at least some of those people may still be eligible to vote.

The department said people in this situation had new felony convictions after their rights were restored by a governor. But in one case, an Arlington County man was removed for a probation violation — an action a circuit court judge swiftly overturned.

There are reasons to think the problem may be more widespread.

A spokesperson for the Virginia State Police confirmed it marks probation violations in prior felony convictions as felonies in the state records keeping system used by elections officials. ELECT spokesperson Andrea Gaines said it’s not the department’s job to “adjudicate” the report of a new felony the department receives — even if the report refers to a technical probation violation.

The Virginia Constitution states that only people convicted of felonies lose the right to vote; it does not specify that people with probation violations face the same fate.

State Sen. Scott Surovell (D–Fairfax), an attorney and senior member of the Democratic caucus, said he’s drafting a new law to address the issue. He called for ELECT to review who was removed from voter rolls to ensure they weren’t eliminated for a technical probation violation.

“You're only convicted of a felony when you go out and commit a new crime, and you're found guilty by a judge or a jury,” Surovell said. “That's not what a probation violation is. And it has nothing to do with voting and shouldn't enter into the voting equation in any way whatsoever.”

ACLU of Virginia policy strategist Shawn Weneta wrote in a statement the organization had received multiple reports from people who said their voting rights were removed without notice. (Gaines said voters receive a letter when they’re removed from the rolls). Weneta called the removal of voters with probation violations “unprecedented and unconstitutional.”

So far, ELECT has not indicated it sees an issue with the status quo. In a Sept. 22 email to Surovell, ELECT Commissioner Susan Beals said people who believe they’ve been improperly removed from the rolls can challenge their removal with their registrar.

“It is ELECT’s mission to ensure that everyone that has the legal right to vote can do so,” Beals said.

Virginia is the only state in the U.S. where people who’ve been convicted of any felony permanently lose their right to vote, serve on a jury or run for office and can only have their rights restored by the governor, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Advocates for repealing the measure note it has roots in Jim Crow policies meant to disenfranchise Black voters.

The number of rights restorations have dropped significantly under Gov. Glenn Youngkin; the department reinstated 2,667 people to voter rolls between Sept. 1, 2022, and Aug. 16, 2023 — roughly one-third of the level from the same period the year before. It’s an even more dramatic descent from the 32,398 people added to the roles during the same period in 2020-21, when former Gov. Ralph Northam opened up restorations to people on probation.

Youngkin’s spokesperson, Macaulay Porter, didn’t directly address how the process had changed, but took aim at Northam in a statement.

“The previous Governor granted rights to many violent criminals and repeat sex offenders during his tenure,” Porter said. “Governor Youngkin believes in second chances, but his top priority is protecting the people of the Commonwealth from violent criminals. We will not comment on specific voter history, but the process is under review.”

A surprise removal from the rolls

Arlington resident Galen Baughman was elated when Northam reinstated his rights in 2021. Baughman had spent nine years in jail and prison after pleading guilty to nonviolent sexual misconduct involving offenses that occurred in 1997 and 2003, when he was 14 and 19.

Galen Baughman Profile Photo Smiling at Columbia University Law School
Galen Baughman had his rights restored by former Gov. Ralph Northam in ​2021 after a felony conviction. When he went to vote in this year's June primaries, however, he was told he had been removed from the voter rolls. In ​July, an Arlington circuit court judge ruled Baughman's probation violation should not have triggered his removal from the rolls and ordered him reinstated.

But when Baughman went to vote in the June primaries, he was told he’d been removed from the voter rolls — despite voting in several elections since his rights were restored. Baughman said he was initially uneasy about casting a provisional ballot. He recalled how Florida authorities arrested 20 people convicted of felonies who’d believed they were eligible to vote and attempted to in the 2020 election. He ultimately agreed to use a provisional ballot.

The Arlington registrar’s office told Baughman he’d been taken off the voting rolls due to a new felony conviction on Aug. 4, 2022. Baughman pointed out that was the date of a hearing when he’d faced two probation violations; there had been no new felony conviction. But Baughman said the registrar, Gretchen Reinemeyer, had refused to reinstate him to the voter rolls. (The office did not respond to an email seeking comment).

Baughman took his case to court, where he said the matter was quickly resolved. In an order dated July 10, Arlington County Circuit Court Judge Daniel Lopez affirmed that the probation violations should not have resulted in Baughman’s removal from voter rolls and ordered the registrar to reinstate him.

Still, Baughman remains frustrated that his provisional ballot was not counted and wary of the motives for his removal from the rolls.

“Everybody in our legal system knows that a technical probation violation is not a new offense,” Baughman said. “And yet, somebody is counting them as a new offense. I can't help to think that that's deliberate.”

A registry with different purposes

In a December news release, ELECT hailed steps it had taken to clean up Virginia voter rolls. The department conducted an audit and discovered 10,558 people should have been removed from the voting rolls because of a new felony conviction that occurred after their rights were restored.

“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 news release said. “ELECT has automated a solution to cancel these voters and add them back to the prohibited list.”

It’s not clear if Baughman was among those removed.

ELECT receives monthly reports from Virginia Criminal Information Network, a statewide database maintained by Virginia State Police that includes criminal convictions and probation violations.

In an email, VSP spokesperson Corinne Geller confirmed that the department marks probation violations stemming from felony convictions as felonies in the VCIN. Surovell said that made sense for the purposes of record-keeping in the court system, where sentencing guidelines can be in part informed by probation violations. But he questioned VSP’s decision to include that information in reports to ELECT, given its irrelevance for voting rights.

ELECT’s spokesperson, Gaines, didn’t directly address questions about Baughman’s case, how it would treat other people in his position and whether Youngkin or Attorney General Jason Miyares’ offices had a role in the changes.

Tram Nguyen, co-executive director of the progressive advocacy group New Virginia Majority, said she was concerned Baughman’s case wasn’t an isolated incident and that some voters may not find out they've been removed until Election Day.

“I think, at best, it's an administrative error,” Nguyen said. “I don't want to speculate as to whether or not this is intentional or deliberate on anybody's part. I will say that this administration has made it harder to have folks rights restored.”

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