Sheba Williams speaks during a press conference in Richmond on Nov. 1, 2023. (Photo: Dean Mirshahi)
The governor's elections team said most have had their voting rights restored, but advocates and Virginians voiced their growing concerns.
RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – Virginians who’ve had their voting rights restored, as well as advocates and others criticized Gov. Glenn Youngkin over the removal of nearly 3,400 voters from the state’s rolls, casting doubt on the total number and the state inspector general’s investigation into the issue.
With Election Day just six days away, they pointed to deep concerns of making sure all affected voters are aware of the error and that they can vote in the state’s high-stakes elections.
“We can’t trust that these numbers are correct. We can’t trust that people have been informed,” Shawn Weneta, policy strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, said during a Wednesday press conference outside Capitol Square’s Bell Tower in Richmond.
Virginia’s Department of Elections said people were wrongly removed from voter rolls after their probation violations were misclassified as new felony convictions in a database maintained by state police, an issue publicly disclosed after reporting from Virginia Public Media.
The elections department initially said it identified about 270 voters impacted by the error, a figure that it later said totaled nearly 3,400. The department said on Oct. 27 that all but about 100 eligible voters impacted have had their rights restored and were sent new registration cards.
“When I found out that there were roughly 300 that had been misclassified, I immediately asked the team to go back and re-scrub because I was worried about the quality of this dataset and of course when they did that, they found over 3,000,” Gov. Youngkin (R) told 8News’ Tyler Englander at an event Wednesday in Louisa County.
A department spokeswoman has not responded to multiple requests to interview Virginia Commissioner of Elections Susan Beals or a follow-up email referring to the governor’s remarks on his request.
While advocates made their frustration with the Youngkin administration clear, many expressed concerns over how the state is notifying affected voters. Weneta said people were sent notices that they’ve been added back to the voter rolls without any explanation, which he said has led to confusion.
“Quite frankly, they deserve an apology,” Weneta told 8News. “They’ve been deprived of weeks, 40 days of early voting. They should not only be getting an apology but there’s other ways they can be reaching out to these people.”
Weneta, who had his rights restored by then-Gov. Ralph Northam after being incarcerated, said many affected voters are still under supervision, so the state could be getting the word out through the probation and parole departments.
Sheba Williams, executive director of Nolef Turns, a nonprofit that aims to reduce recidivism and advocates for rights restoration, said the organization has received several calls and questions about the issue from people who have voiced reticence and fear over trying to have their voting rights restored.
“A lot of our workload has shifted to answering questions, being present, educating people about the process, educating people about how to figure out if they’re still eligible and making sure people know this is happening,” Williams told 8News Wednesday. “A lot of people don’t even know that this purge happened.”
Virginians automatically lose their civil rights — such as the right to vote, run for office and serve on a jury – after a felony conviction. Virginia is the only state in the country that leaves the restoration process in the hands of the governor, per the Brennan Center for Justice.
“I think there is a lot of uncertainty around whether or not that 3,400 is a final number. I am hopeful that there will be continued investigation and continued accountability,” Tram Nguyen, the co-executive director of New Virginia Majority, told 8News after the press conference.
“I’m more concerned right now that this election is six days away and for individuals who want to vote, making sure that they have accurate information around what they can do,” Nguyen added.
Virginia’s early voting window for the state’s crucial Nov. 7 elections, where control of the General Assembly is on the line, opened on Sept. 22.
Gov. Youngkin ordered the Virginia inspector general to investigate how the voters were removed. But many who gathered for Wednesday’s press conference raised transparency concerns, echoing Virginia Democrats in Congress who called for a Department of Justice probe.
Williams and Nguyen said their groups have been in touch with voters about their status, answering questions about ballot access in the wake of the issue being discovered. They noted that Virginia has same-day voter registration that affected voters can use to cast a provisional ballot.
Still, Williams shared that she’s worried about the people who are waiting on information from their local election offices.
“People still don’t know their status,” Williams told 8News. “People will show up on Election Day and not know, and we don’t have a lot of time.”
Nathaniel Hill, one of the speakers during Wednesday’s press conference, said his voting rights were restored before he was mistakenly removed from the voter rolls last year. He said his voting rights were reinstated recently.
“My thing is, I paid $3,300 in taxes last year,” Hill said. “So, if you can accept my tax money, then you can restore my rights.”