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Virginia election officials scramble to add back voters mistakenly removed from rolls


Election officials in Virginia are scrambling to add back voters who were mistakenly removed from the rolls. The issue centers on people with felony convictions in their past. Here's Ben Paviour with member station VPM.

BEN PAVIOUR, BYLINE: When Elizabeth Shelton (ph) pled guilty to robbery in 2019, her prison sentence was suspended, no time behind bars. But the crime was a felony. And in Virginia, that means she'd lost the right to vote.

ELIZABETH SHELTON: It's a very odd thing to explain to someone who's never had their rights taken away, but it makes you feel like not a real citizen.

PAVIOUR: Virginia is the only state where people convicted of any felony automatically lose their right to vote unless the governor restores it. And that's what happened to Shelton in 2021 under former Governor Ralph Northam.

SHELTON: As soon as I had my rights restored, I registered to vote. I was really excited.

PAVIOUR: Shelton cast her ballot in the next few elections. Then last year, she says she got a letter from her local registrar saying she'd been removed from voter rolls. State officials told her she'd had a new felony conviction. Shelton knew that was incorrect. She'd only had a probation violation, but the whole thing scared her off.

SHELTON: I'm not taking any steps until I have something in writing saying that, yes, your rights are restored. You know, I'm still terrified, honestly.

PAVIOUR: Shelton is one of an unknown number of people in Virginia who were mistakenly removed from voter rolls after probation violations. The Department of Elections initially said they were following the law. But earlier this week, a department spokesperson said people with probation violations had been, quote, "canceled in error." The spokesperson says they're working to add those people back to voter rolls. And state police say they'll no longer provide the names of people with probation violations to elections officials. But Democratic State Senator Scott Surovell says the department needs to reassure voters like Shelton.

SCOTT SUROVELL: I'm concerned that the Department of Elections went and monkeyed around with the plumbing of our voting infrastructure without fully thinking through the consequences of what they were doing.

PAVIOUR: For Surovell, this issue is part of a broader pattern under Governor Glenn Youngkin. Since taking office, the Republican has been more reluctant than his Democratic predecessors to restore rights to people convicted of felonies. Youngkin's office declined to comment on the voter removals. Early voting in the state's legislative elections is underway. Youngkin's agenda, including a push for election integrity, hinges on his party's ability to flip Virginia's divided legislature.

For NPR News, I'm Ben Paviour in Richmond. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ben Paviour