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Virginia Democrats aim to tighten voter rolls post-ERIC, voter purge

A person holding a sheet of paper walks past several people standing at voting booths in front of a mural of the US flag superimposed on a map of the country
Ryan M. Kelly
For VPM News
Voters cast their ballots at Robious Elementary School on Election Day on Tuesday, November 7, 2023 in Chesterfield County, Virginia.

A handful of bills would set up guardrails on how the state cleans its voter lists.

Virginia Democrats have introduced legislation inspired by a turbulent year in Virginia’s election administration and have pressed Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s top elections officer to explain what happened.

In May, Commissioner of Elections Susan Beals announced the state was leaving the Electronic Registration Information Center, a previously bipartisan, multistate data-sharing partnership that became the target of right-wing conspiracy theories in 2022.

Months later, VPM News broke news that the department of elections (ELECT) had mistakenly removed what later turned out to be some 3,400 people from voter rolls.

Both incidents drew criticism from Democrats and voting rights experts. With Democrats now holding a majority of both chambers of Virginia’s General Assembly, they’ve put forward bills aimed at addressing what happened.

Leaving ERIC

At least two bills and one budget amendment seek to reinstate Virginia’s membership in ERIC. The multistate compact was widely praised by GOP and Democratic-run states (as well as Beals’ ELECT in a 2022 report) until it became the subject of conspiracy theories in 2022 driven by the website Gateway Pundit.

Another bill, from state Sen. Schuyler VanValkenburg (D–Henrico), addresses ERIC’s replacements, including data-sharing agreements with individual states. To reduce the risk of incorrectly removing a voter, VanValkenburg’s bill requires any data source Virginia uses to have a unique personal identifier, like a social security number, or combine several data points “that can be reliably linked to a single individual.”

At a committee meeting last month, VanValkenburg said his goal is to avoid problems seen in other states that left ERIC.

“They’re using a lot of different data sets … and a lot of them are junk,” VanValkenburg said. “And this is to try to keep that junk out.”

VanValkenburg’s bill passed with bipartisan support, with all but two Republicans joining Democrats to vote for the legislation.

At a House elections committee meeting last month, Del. Mark Sickles (D–Fairfax) pressed Beals on why she’d never expressed those concerns to lawmakers or given a head’s up about her decision to withdraw from ERIC.

“You didn't think it was important enough to tell this committee, tell the General Assembly?” Sickles asked. “You know, we actually fund your agency.”

Beals said the conversations about reforms in ERIC were happening in February and March, while lawmakers were in session, “and that would be the reason that there was not an update to you at that time.”

Beals also told House lawmakers she’d attempted to convince other ERIC member states to change some policies, including requiring states to send out mail proactively asking unregistered residents if they wanted to be added to the state’s voter rolls, a process she said cost the department over $200,000 annually. Beals said she only withdrew after those efforts failed.

At least nine states left ERIC last year, including Texas, Ohio and West Virginia.

Voter removals

A bill from state Sen. Aaron Rouse (D–Virginia Beach) aims to prevent a repeat of last year’s voter purge. The removals affected people who’d previously been convicted of a felony but subsequently had their rights restored by the governor. In Virginia, people convicted of felonies automatically lose the right to vote unless a governor restores it.

ELECT said it restored the affected voters ahead of November’s elections. In December, the Office of the State Inspector General issued a reportattributing the removals to miscommunication between ELECT and Virginia State Police, which maintains the state record database. OSIG determined the removals were accidental.

Rouse said that going forward, people with felony convictions who are mistakenly removed from the rolls “should actually have due process to clear up any miscommunications or any confusion that would prevent them from voting.”

His legislation would require registrars to notify people with felony convictions of their removal by mail and email. It would also give people in that situation 14 days to challenge their removal with local election officials, track the list of people who are removed and make that list available via public records request.

Rouse’s legislation also would assign data used to remove voters a score. For example, a data point that includes a full Social Security number would be worth 40 points, while a match of a first and last name would be worth 15 points each. The total score would need to exceed 80 points for a voter to be removed.

In a committee hearing Tuesday Tram Nguyen, co-director of the advocacy group New Virginia Majority and one of the bill’s authors, said the system was borrowed from Indiana. An ELECT representative told lawmakers the state already uses a system to score the reliability of data points.

“This actually just tries to put something in code to make sure that we have some standard instead of just leaving it up to, you know, administration by administration,” Nguyen told lawmakers.

The bill advanced in a party line vote. Del. Cia Price (D–Newport News) has a bill in the House that combines elements of Rouse’s and VanValkenburg’s legislation. That’s set to be heard in committee Friday morning.

At her House committee hearing, Beals said the department was “made aware” in September of an issue involving a person who’d been erroneously removed from the rolls.

“We had an individual who came to us and let us know that that is what had happened to him,” Beals said. When it became clear the problem was systemic, “we took several steps to immediately address that.”

In September, VPM News presented the department with evidence that one Arlington County voter, Galen Baughman, had been mistakenly removed.

In an email Thursday, ELECT spokesperson Andrea Gaines confirmed Beals had been talking about Baughman. Gaines said the department took action when it “received initial information regarding this issue, including the court order declaring his eligibility to register.”

But when VPM News first presented the court order to ELECT in September, Gaines said the department was following the law and did not directly address questions about why Baughman had been removed from the rolls.

Less than a week after VPM News published a story about Baughman’s mistaken removal, the department acknowledged an unknown number of people who’d had their voting rights restored had been purged for probation violations rather than new felony convictions. It attributed the problem to VSP’s data, which didn’t distinguish between felony convictions and probation violations in certain cases. (By the end of October, ELECT acknowledged the number of purged voters was approximately 3,400.)

ELECT said officials addressed that error and reinstated the voters.

Deb Freeman does not work on or contribute to Style Weekly and VPM News content related to her full-time position at New Virginia Majority.

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