Commentary

Felons who voted likely thought they could do so legally

State didn’t bar them, so freed felons cast ballots

December 15, 2022 12:02 am

A voter fills out his ballot at a polling station in Buckingham County, Va., November 3, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce / For the Virginia Mercury)

State election officials should thank Stephanie Iles, Norfolk’s general registrar and director of elections. She helped uncover a computer glitch that allowed more than 10,000 felons to stay on voter rolls after they were convicted of new crimes making them ineligible – again – to vote.

The fact state officials were unaware of the problem for more than a decade should guide Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares in how strongly he pursues prosecution. The 10,558 people who remained on the rolls – only about 1,000 of whom actually voted – is a small subset of the hundreds of thousands who had their voting and other civil rights restored by recent governors.

Miyares’ stance should be one of reason and compassion. Many who cast ballots probably thought they had that privilege.

After all, no one in charge had alerted them otherwise.

Earlier this year, Iles told me, she had noticed Norfolk residents with felony convictions had applied to vote. They should’ve been knocked off the rolls of acceptable applicants, but they hadn’t been.

“I actually spoke with the commissioner about it,” Iles said, referring to Susan Beals, state Department of Elections commissioner. Agency spokespeople confirmed to me Iles had alerted Beals about the glitch and was the first local registrar to do so.

As my colleague Graham Moomaw reported recently, the state’s voter system wasn’t set up to accont for the possibility newly registered voters might re-offend and become ineligible again. “ELECT has automated a solution to cancel these voters and add them back to the prohibited list,” the agency said in a Dec. 9 news release.

The problem had existed since at least 2011, officials told Moomaw. 

The fact the possible data flaw wasn’t envisioned seems unbelievable.

Virginia has remained among the states with the lowest recidivism rates nationwide. That figure, though, most recently was 22.3%, a state corrections department official told me Wednesday. So it stands to reason some people who got back on voter rolls would re-offend eventually. (Recidivism refers to re-incarceration of state-responsible inmates within three years of their release.)

“The programming was quite faulty,” Jesse Richman, associate professor of political science and international studies at Old Dominion University, said about the glitch involving felons.

Nor is this the first time the state’s aging voter system has come under scrutiny recently.

The elections department had problems earlier in 2022 processing voter registration data from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. Local election officials had to process more than 250,000 transactions that hadn’t been properly transferred just before the midterms in November.

That’s not the way to endear your agency to localities around the commonwealth.

A state elections official told me the new voter system, which should take care of the technological shortcomings, should be up and running in 2025.

None of this should cast doubt on the hundreds of thousands of people who have had their rights restored in Virginia. Many have gone on to vote legally.

The state remains one of the most punitive nationwide for released felons who want to vote again. They have to petition the governor for restoration instead of gaining it automatically, as in many other places.

The process has become simpler since the term of Gov. Bob McDonnell. His successors, Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam, restored rights to roughly 284,000 former prisoners.

Virginia could end the stench of racial bias that hangs around felon disenfranchisement, which dates to at least the early 1900s. Along with literacy tests and poll taxes, bans on felon voting prevented African Americans from casting ballots.

We all could’ve changed the clause in the Virginia Constitution involving felon voting. But the House of Delegates, now under Republican control, this year struck down the necessary second vote to amend the document.

Which brings me back to Miyares. Will his much ballyhooed (and totally unnecessary) “election integrity unit” go after the 1,000 people who had gotten their rights back, committed a new felony and voted illegally – though probably unaware they were wrong in doing so?

“Yes, our unit is involved,” his spokeswoman, Victoria LaCivita, told me by email. She said she couldn’t comment further.

My unsolicited advice? Punt on the investigation.

In the first place, the fact these individuals weren’t behind bars and could vote means they probably weren’t guilty of a serious felony.

Nor is this worth tying up the unit’s attorneys and the courts. Or saddling onetime felons with yet another crime – when local and state elections officials didn’t even bar them from voting.

It’s smarter to streamline the restoration process even further. Maybe then, the state won’t have to double-check its computer programming.

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]

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