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

Youngkin orders Virginia Inspector General to investigate voter removals

Gov Youngkin gives remarks
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Gov. Glenn Youngkin gives remarks during a Secure Your Vote Rally on Monday, October 23, 2023 in Glen Allen, Virginia.

People who’ve had their rights restored continue to report confusion, problems accessing the ballot.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin has ordered the Virginia Office of the Inspector General to investigate the removal of eligible voters from state rolls.

His response comes as people who’ve had their rights restored continue to report problems accessing the ballot.

In a letter to the ACLU of Virginia dated Monday, Youngkin’s secretary of administration, Lyn McDermid, said the governor was “deeply concerned” to learn that people who’d had their rights restored were stripped from the voter rolls after probation violations.

At least 275 people were improperly removed from the voter rolls and have subsequently been reinstated as of Oct. 10. A spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Elections did not respond to repeated emails requesting updated information. But in an email Tuesday responding to a public records request on behalf of the Democratic Party of Virginia, an unidentified ELECT employee called a batch of 269 people who’d had their rights restored an “initial pilot” without identifying how many more remained.

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

McDermid said the governor asked the OSIG to “immediately investigate and report on the causes and circumstances surrounding these individuals being removed from the list of eligible voters.” She said the OSIG, led by Inspector General Michael Westfall, had already begun that work.

The issue, which was first reported by VPM News in late September, appeared to surface after ELECT announced in December that it had removed 10,558 people from voter rolls who’d had their rights restored but went on to face new felony convictions. The department said its software hadn’t previously tracked new convictions for that group.

VPM News reporting showed that at least some of those individuals had not committed new felonies but instead faced technical probation violations — such as missing a court date.

McDermid said Youngkin also ordered the OSIG to investigate how “thousands of Virginians may have been permitted to remain on Virginia's registered voter list, despite being convicted of a new felony following an earlier restoration of their voting rights.”

That letter came after the ACLU of Virginia sent a letter to the administration on Oct. 18 requesting more details into how the accidental purge occurred, who was affected and how that group was being notified of their rights.

In a statement released Wednesday, ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Mary Bauer blasted the administration’s response as insufficient. Bauer said it had failed to answer critical questions the ACLU had posed.

“The administration’s claim that its error has been corrected is belied by the ongoing reports we are still receiving now from people who have yet to have their voting rights reinstated – as well as reports from others who are afraid they’ll be punished if they ask for them back,” Bauer said.

Aaron Mukerjee, voter protection director at the DPVA, called the investigation “another attempt at gaslighting” because of its focus on voters who may have remained on the rolls.

“Look, the issue was that his Department of Elections was removing eligible voters from the rolls,” Mukerjee said. “They haven't fixed that problem.”

Persistent problems

McDermid’s letter said Department of Elections Commissioner Susan Beals had instructed registrars to reinstate eligible voters “as quickly as possible,” so they can be permitted to vote in the Nov. 7 elections; early voting began Sept. 22.

But VPM News spoke to two voters who’ve faced challenges accessing the ballot.

Nathaniel Hill is a resident of Southampton County who was convicted of aggravated sexual battery in the city of Hampton in 2015 and had his rights restored in March 2021. Hill said he received a letter in December 2022 stating he’d been removed from the voter rolls for a new felony conviction.

But Hill hadn’t faced any new convictions, just a probation violation. Confused, Hill turned to the local registrar, Hampton Circuit Court and later, the Youngkin administration for help.

Despite the fact that Hill hadn’t lost his rights since they were restored in 2021, he reapplied. But the Youngkin administration rejected his request on Aug. 17 as “ineligible at this time,” seemingly unaware that former Gov. Ralph Northam had already taken action in Hill’s case.

Youngkin’s spokesperson, Macaulay Porter, did not respond to questions about how the administration handled that or other rights restorations.

On Monday — at about the same time VPM News emailed ELECT with questions about Hill’s case — Hill said he’d received a call, and later, picked up a letter from the Southampton County elections office informing him that he was now a registered voter.

ELECT spokesperson Andrea Gaines did not respond to questions about the episode.

The county’s registrar, Lynn Burgess, said in a Wednesday interview that she’d received Hill’s reinstatement information through the state’s elections IT system, but couldn’t recall exactly when. Burgess said she hadn’t heard directly from anyone at ELECT about the case.

Hill said voting is a basic right, despite his record. And he remained skeptical the state had fully restored his rights.

“If I'm working and you’re using my tax dollars for whatever, my rights should be restored — period,” Hill said.

In a separate case, Arlington County voter Eric Wardell said he’d faced repeated obstacles registering to vote this year.

Wardell’s rights were restored in 2019 by Northam after a felony drug possession conviction two years earlier. But when Wardell went to register to vote this year, he said he was told by local election officials he was ineligible to do so. While Wardell has faced two probation violations since he was convicted, he has not been charged or convicted of a felony.

Wardell has petitioned Arlington County Court twice for reinstatement to the voter rolls, including at a hearing Monday. In an order dated Wednesday, Judge Louise M. DiMatteo said she’d submit a question to Attorney General Jason Miyares on whether it was within her authority to take that action.

Miyares declined to take questions about the voter removal issue at a Tuesday press conference on an unrelated topic.

In an interview after this story was initially published, Wardell said he’d learned Wednesday afternoon that he’d been added to the voter rolls. He described his ordeal as “confusing.”

“I believe that it shouldn't be this hard — especially once I've served my time, I’m off probation,” Wardell said. “I think I should be able to vote."

Updated: October 25, 2023 at 5:59 PM EDT
Adds additional information about the Virginia Department of Elections restoring the rights of 275 people, as well quotes from the Democratic Party of Virginia and Arlington County voter Eric Wardel.
Updated: October 25, 2023 at 3:47 PM EDT
The timeline of Nathaniel Hill being contacted by the Southampton County elections office and VPM News emailing the Virginia Department of Elections has been clarified.
Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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