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Thousands of Virginians were mistakenly removed from voter rolls before election

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Virginia election officials say they improperly removed nearly 3,400 eligible voters from the state's rolls. Their announcement came during early voting for the state's legislative elections. Now advocates are calling for a federal investigation into what happened. Ben Paviour of member station VPM was the first to report on this ongoing issue more than a month ago, and he's here to bring us up to speed on the latest. Hey, Ben.

BEN PAVIOUR, BYLINE: Hey.

SHAPIRO: More than 3,000 eligible voters removed from the state's rolls. I know there's a long backstory here. How did this happen?

PAVIOUR: Well, sure. You know, to understand that, you need a little context. In Virginia, if you're convicted of any felony, you lose the right to vote unless the governor restores it. It's the only state with that system. A few months ago, I began hearing reporting - reports of folks who'd had their rights restored but discovered they'd been kicked off the voter rolls again. And so I went to the state Department of Elections and said, hey, what's going on here? And at first, they denied anything was wrong. But eventually, Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin's office said they removed fewer than 300 voters. These are people who'd had their voting rights restored but went on to have a probation violation. The Department of Elections said its software misinterpreted those probation violations as felony convictions - two very different things.

SHAPIRO: So how did that initial claim of removing about 300 voters balloon to more than 10 times that number that we have today?

PAVIOUR: When that number of 300 first came out, there was a lot of skepticism, and I kept hearing from folks who were running into this problem. Finally, on Friday afternoon of last week, we got some clarity. The Department of Elections announced a much higher total of 3,400. They said that as of Friday, almost all affected voters had been reinstated. Now advocates are keeping an eye out for people who may have slipped through the cracks.

SHAPIRO: So the state says voters are reinstated. Is that the end of the story?

PAVIOUR: Absolutely not. The lack of transparency and those changing numbers have really bred suspicion. Here's Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, who's a Democrat, who's also a potential contender for governor, calling for a federal investigation at a rally earlier today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEVAR STONEY: We need Merrick Garland. We need the Department of Justice to get on top of this because this is the biggest stunt right before Election Day I've ever seen in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

PAVIOUR: To be clear, there's no evidence these voters' removals were deliberate. But some advocates and Democrats say there needs to be an investigation to find out for sure. The DOJ has declined to comment on a federal investigation. Governor Youngkin hasn't apologized for this but has ordered an investigation by the state inspector general. That office is independent, and the current head was appointed by a Democrat. But Youngkin's critics point out that he ultimately reports to the governor.

SHAPIRO: The mayor there said this is happening right before Election Day. Early voting has already started in Virginia. It's an election for state senators and delegates. So what does this mean for the control of power in the state?

PAVIOUR: These elections are expected to be very close. There's tons of money flowing into the state right now. Youngkin and his fellow Republicans are trying to flip the state Senate and hold on to the House of Delegates. If they do that, they'll control all the levers of power in Richmond. Democrats are obviously trying to ward them off. If they manage to win both chambers, they promised to pass a constitutional amendment. It would automatically give voting rights back to people with felony convictions and take away the power from the governor's office. This amendment doesn't need Youngkin's approval to go in front of voters. If it passes, it would undo a rule that was put in place over a hundred years ago in the Jim Crow era.

SHAPIRO: VPM's Ben Paviour. Thank you so much for your reporting.

PAVIOUR: Happy to do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) 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
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