RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Around 200 eligible voters in Richmond who were mistakenly removed from voter rolls have been added back.
The Virginia Department of Elections has been contacting local election administrators about voters with past felony convictions who had their voting rights restored but were removed from state rolls after their probation violations were incorrectly recorded as new felony violations.
The issue, first revealed by Virginia Public Media, has led to a state inspector general investigation less than two weeks away from Election Day. It’s also drawn sharp criticism from Democrats and advocacy groups against Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration.
The total number of people affected by this mistake is still unclear, but the Department of Elections previously said at least 275 as of Oct. 10. Andrea Gaines, a spokesperson for the state’s elections department, has not answered multiple requests from 8News for updated information.
How many voters?
In an email provided to 8News, and first reported by VPM, the department’s FOIA office said 269 people whose rights were restored were part of an “initial pilot” to “confirm its database would automatically process the updates” with no details on how many still needed to be reinstated.
Numbers and estimates provided by election officials indicate that as many as 388 people in just four localities in the Richmond area have had their rights reinstated since the issue was discovered.
Richmond General Registrar Keith Balmer told 8News he only had an estimate, not an exact number, on the number of eligible voters in the city who were impacted.
“But I can tell you that it is, as of today, around 200,” Balmer said in an Oct. 26 email.
Balmer said his office has reinstated those voters’ registrations and sent them letters informing them that they are back on the voter roll.
“A few are tricking in daily,” he added.
Teresa Smithson, Hanover County’s general registrar, told 8News that the county had to reinstate registrations for 11 eligible voters. Chesterfield County General Registrar Missy Vera said “Thirteen voters were reinstated to the voter rolls as a result of wrongful removal.”
Henrico’s registrar, Mark Coakley, wrote in an email to 8News Thursday that his staff “said we had 164 and they have been cleaned out.”
Petersburg General Registrar Dawn Wilmoth said Thursday that her liaison advised her that she could not share how many voters in the city were impacted.
In a phone call Thursday, Wilmoth told 8News she asked her liaison whether she could share the number but was told “absolutely not” and that she should refer 8News to the elections department.
“Per our telephone conversation, I am strictly following a guidance directive I was provided for you to get with Andrea Gaines [spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Elections],” Wilmoth wrote in a follow-up email to 8News. “Your sharing with me that everyone else has provided such is not for me to comment on. Nor do I feel I am being arbitrary having inquired with Elect [the department] for guidance before proceeding to respond to your request.”
On Friday, Wilmoth sent an email to 8News sharing that three city voters “had to be reinstated under the Probation/Felony situation detected,” and all were sent updated voter ID cards.
The “initial pilot”
The state’s elections department’s FOIA office sent an Oct. 24 email responding to a public records request on behalf of the Democratic Party of Virginia. The email explained that the department conducted a pilot to test whether its elections data system — Virginia Election and Registration Information System (VERIS) – could automatically process “lists of individuals to be reinstated” and send information to general registrars.
“Out of an abundance of caution, this initial pilot included a communication and accompanying list of 269 individuals to local registrars so that ELECT could confirm its database would automatically process the updates,” the email reads. “After the pilot, all subsequent updates of additional affected individuals were provided through ELECT’s VERIS database directly to local registrars.”
Initial reports regarding the number of affected voters did not include the information that the 269 people on the pilot list were a portion of the total list – a test to see if the process worked. Further reporting by news outlets revealed this information.
Losing the right to vote
Virginians automatically lose their civil rights – such as the right to vote, run for office and serve on a jury – when convicted of a felony. Once that has happened, only the governor can restore their voting rights.
Virginia is the only state in the country with such a system, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
Virginia state police and the elections department said the issue stemmed from people with probation violations being incorrectly included in a list of people with felony convictions maintained by state police.
Virginia’s elections department asked state police to analyze their data to identify those “who may have been canceled in error,” Gaines wrote in an email to 8News.
On Tuesday, Youngkin’s secretary of administration sent a letter to the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia sharing that the governor ordered the state inspector general to look into the issue.
“Governor Youngkin believes that every eligible Virginian should exercise his or her right to vote,” Secretary Lyn McDermid wrote to Mary Bauer, the ACLU of Virginia’s executive director.
“He was deeply concerned to learn that certain felons whose rights had previously been restored, but who had subsequently violated their probation, were improperly removed from the registered voter list because this subsequent violation was miscoded as a felony,” McDermid added.
McDermid added that Youngkin also asked the inspector general’s office to investigate “preliminary findings that during the past several decades” thousands of Virginians may have been able to stay on registered voter lists despite a new felony conviction after having their rights restored.
Bauer released a statement blasting McDermid’s letter, accusing Youngkin’s administration of trying “to pass the buck to local registrars to take responsibility for the mess the administration created.”
Update: This story has been updated to include numbers provided by Petersburg and Henrico County’s general registrars, which came after publication.