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

Virginia election officials acknowledge voters mistakenly removed from rolls

A voting booth has an American flag and the word "vote" printed on the side.
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
A Virginia Department of Elections spokesperson says election officials are currently working with Virginia State Police to identify the names of people whose voter registration has been “canceled in error.”

Virginia State Police are changing what information gets reported to ELECT.

A spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Elections said Tuesday the state is working to resolve an issue that caused an unknown number of eligible voters to be removed from the state’s rolls. The move follows VPM News reporting that found people with probation violations lost their eligibility to vote under changes the department instituted over the last year.

ELECT spokesperson Andrea Gaines said state election officials were working with Virginia State Police to identify the names of people whose registration was “canceled in error,” a process she said began Tuesday. In an email, Gaines wrote that ELECT would then pass along those names to local registrars to immediately reinstate the voters.

“Whenever ELECT receives information about a problem with an individual’s registration, we work diligently to research and address the issue,” Gaines said. She did not provide a timeline for reinstating all of the affected voters.

The response marks a change in tone for the department and its leader, Commissioner Susan Beals. In a Sept. 22 email to state Sen. Scott Surovell (D–Fairfax), Beals defended the department's voter registration cancellations, saying it “strictly follows” state law.

Virginia is the only state in the U.S. where people convicted of any felony automatically lose their right to vote unless a governor restores it, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

The problems appear to stem from recent changes by ELECT aimed at removing people from voter rolls who’ve had their rights restored and subsequently been convicted of a new felony. In a December press release, the department said it had identified 10,558 people who fit that description.

VPM News interviewed two people who said they were removed from voter rolls over the last nine months, despite having their voting rights restored under former Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam. In both cases, the individuals said they’d faced new, technical probation violations — not a new felony conviction. Surovell and civil rights groups have argued there are likely many others in the same boat.

Virginia State Police spokesperson Corinne Geller said the department was making changes to what information it provided to the Virginia Department of Elections to avoid the problem continuing. Geller confirmed the data VSP previously provided ELECT contained both probation violations, as well as new felony convictions.

“At the request of the Virginia Department of Elections, and after consulting with the Office of the Attorney General, the monthly [Virginia Central Criminal Records Exchange] report no longer contains felony probation violation charges to not inadvertently disqualify individuals whose rights were previously restored by the former Governor,” Geller said.

Surovell, who serves as vice chairperson of the Democratic Senate caucus, said he’d called, texted and emailed Beals over the last several days to try to understand how ELECT was handling data it got from CCRE and how the department would fix the issue. (Beals did not respond to a VPM News interview request.)

In an interview Tuesday evening, Surovell said he’d spoken to Beals after VPM News initially published this story.

Surovell said there was “plausibility” in the explanation he’d received from Beals: that ELECT’s effort to remove people with new felony convictions unintentionally swept up people with probation violations because of the way VSP keeps records. But he said the issue was part of a pattern of mistakes at ELECT, including incidents last year when an IT glitch affected voter registration data and the department sent thousands of mailers listing incorrect voting locations.

“These are the kinds of things that you should game out before you make changes to systems like this that affects people's constitutional rights,” Surovell said.

Those comments were echoed by Tram Nguyen, co-executive director of the progressive group New Virginia Majority, and Shawn Weneta, a policy strategist for the ACLU of Virginia. In an email, Weneta said ELECT’s actions “have already had a chilling effect on Virginians' participation in early voting.”

A spokesperson for Gov. Glenn Youngkin did not respond to requests for comment on whether the administration had any role in the voter removals. Youngkin’s office defended the practice in a statement to VPM News last week.

Updated: October 3, 2023 at 8:04 PM EDT
This story's been updated with new comments from Sen. Scott Surovell and Virginia State Police spokesperson Corinne Geller.
Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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