Glenn Youngkin addresses a crowd of supporters in Richmond during his first rally after winning the GOP’s nomination for governor. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Officials in Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration, including the de facto state Republican Party chief himself, can’t get voting right in Virginia.
The latest piece of evidence is the purging of nearly 3,400 citizens who, as former felons, had had their voting rights restored. They were then incorrectly taken off the rolls because of probation violations and then belatedly reinstated.
The Virginia Department of Elections announced the newest developments Oct. 27, as early voting continued for all 140 state House of Delegates and Senate contests leading up to Tuesday, Election Day. The results will determine whether Youngkin can impose an agenda that includes limiting most abortions after 15 weeks in the commonwealth.
True, 3,400 people out of 6.12 million registered voters in Virginia is a tiny percentage. The margin of victory for state House candidates in 2021, however, was razor-thin in several contests. More on that later.
The Virginia Department of Elections earlier in October (also known as ELECT) had originally said at least 275 voters had been affected by the snafu. Staffers culled the former felons from the rolls after they removed people who committed new felonies after their rights had been restored.
“This already has had a chilling effect on voting,” Shawn Weneta, policy and advocacy strategist at the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, told me this week. He’s a onetime felon whose rights were restored under then-Gov. Ralph Northam.
“People have gone and tried to vote [early] and been turned away,” Weneta added. “It’s an equity issue.”
Would anyone be surprised if, after Election Day, officials discovered even more than 3,400 people had been affected?
Virginians who have faced problems include Eric Wardell, who VPM News reported had petitioned Arlington County twice for reinstatement after being unable to register to vote there, even though his rights had been restored in 2019. Wardell later told the outlet he learned he’d been added to the voter rolls.
Another was Nathaniel Hill, 59, who spoke at a news conference Wednesday in Richmond. “I paid $3,300 in taxes last year,” Hill said. “If you can accept my tax money, then you can restore my rights,” reported the Virginia Mercury’s Graham Moomaw.
Youngkin has ordered the state inspector general to investigate the removals. The problem, though, is that they occurred in the first place. Congressional Democrats from Virginia have asked U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to probe the issue, too.
The bumbling from the current state administration speaks volumes concerning Youngkin’s overheated claims about voting when he was on the campaign trail in 2021 and what he’s actually done while in office.
He said back then that elections – though run well in the commonwealth – deserved greater scrutiny. He participated in a discredited “election integrity” rally in Lynchburg. He played coy during the GOP nominating process about whether he believed Joe Biden had won the 2020 presidential election.
Since Youngkin was inaugurated in early 2022, though, he and other officials have overseen a share of electoral problems. The governor also has helped worsen one of the nation’s most rigid and discriminatory policies of rights restoration for felons.
He could’ve endorsed a constitutional amendment that would’ve allowed automatic restoration of voting and other civil rights. (It had passed the General Assembly in 2021 and needed to pass a second time before going to Virginians in a referendum.) Instead, Youngkin stayed mute, and House Republicans – newly in charge in 2022 – killed the bill in a subcommittee.
His administration forced people seeking a return of those rights to apply, rather than automatically restoring them. The opaqueness of the process, including the criteria for restoration, led to lawsuits.
Susan Beals, Youngkin’s elections commissioner, then pulled Virginia out of a formerly uncontroversial, multistate program to share accurate voter rolls. The departure came even after a high-ranking state lawyer assigned to handle election issues by Republican Attorney General Jason Miyares defended the usefulness of the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC. The commonwealth had been a charter member in 2012.
As I wrote earlier this year, Virginia’s decision to leave the program followed unhinged complaints by conspiracy theorists and some politicians. Several states with Republican leaders left the compact. Yet as I write this, ERIC still lists 24 states and the District of Columbia as members.
Virginia announced in September it has signed data-sharing agreements with five states and D.C. “Virginia now updates our voter list using data coming directly from one-to-one data sharing agreements with neighboring states and partnerships with state and federal agencies,” the Department of Elections announcement read.
The self-congratulatory tone, however, can’t mask the fact Virginia is reinventing a wheel that wasn’t broken. Or that the number of states in the new compact is far fewer than ERIC’s total.
Back to the narrow results in the House of Delegates’ elections in 2021:
State Democratic Party officials have pointed out their candidates lost several close contests that year. A few included the 91st District (94 votes), 85th District (115 votes) and 63rd District (512 votes). They want to make sure everybody who can vote has the ability to do so and no one is disenfranchised.
Instead of “election integrity,” Youngkin and his crew should pursue “election competence.” With this administration, that’s been lacking – especially with so much at stake at the polls.
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