McAuliffe Briefed Progressive Organizers on Felon Voting Order, Left Election Officials in Dark

Emails show that group knew of 206,000 newly eligible felon voters ahead of time

Terry McAuliffe
Terry McAuliffe / AP

Voter registrars across Virginia were caught off guard when Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D.) announced that he was restoring voter rights for 206,000 felons, but progressive activists who had been working to get the would-be-voters registered had known for weeks.

Emails obtained through a state Freedom of Information Act request by the Richmond Times-Dispatch strengthen the argument being made by Republicans that the McAuliffe administration was more concerned about the political impact of its order than the logistical nightmare it would create for state agencies.

New Virginia Majority, which describes itself as "the catalytic force for the progressive transformation of Virginia," was told about the order at least three weeks before it was announced on April 22.

Tram Nguyen, the group's executive director, had a meeting with the current secretary of the Commonwealth, Kelly Thomasson, on March 30 and wrote in an email that when she got home from the meeting she was "literally crying."

"Now that I'm home and have let the news sink in, I'm literally sitting here crying," Nguyen wrote in the email. "What this administration is doing is a game changer in so many ways."

The group was ready to hand out fliers on the day of the announcement and was focused on getting the newly eligible voters on the rolls.

"Canvassers from New Virginia Majority were fanning out across Virginia’s urban crescent, paperwork at the ready, hunting for newly eligible voters," the Washington Post reported in May. "They collected more than 100 applications. In one hour. In the rain."

Nguyen contributed $500 to the Democratic Party of Virginia in January 2014, a week before McAuliffe was sworn in as governor.

Registrars across the state who were faced with hundreds of phone calls from felons who wanted to see whether they were eligible to vote say they wish they had had the same notice as New Virginia Majority.

"We had phones that were ringing off the hook," Hanover county registrar Teresa Smithson told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. "It was really a shock to me and my staff that this was coming."

Registrars in some counties were faced with a May 23 registration deadline for felons who wanted to vote in primary elections held on June 14.

"We had no forewarning at all," said Dawn Williams, the registrar in Petersburg. "In essence, registrars across the commonwealth had no further notice than anyone else."

"Our concerns were how the process was going to be handled," said Williams, who was faced with handling applications for individuals who were not showing up on the database of eligible voters.

"It's not only been haphazard for registrars' offices," said Williams. "Think of the individuals affected."

"They can't find their name on the database, they can't find a status," said Williams, whose office still has 60 applications being reviewed.

McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that the order was kept under wraps because the administration was concerned about state Republicans filing a lawsuit to stop the order.

"Confidentiality was an important factor in this process," Coy said.

Nguyen said that though New Virginia Majority knew about the impending order they were "not given any details" about processes or how the list of felons was being made.

The executive order, which is being challenged by state Republicans and a bipartisan group of prosecutors concerned about its legal ramifications, has invited criticism for mistakes such as the ones Williams is dealing with.

Among the individuals mistakenly given their voting rights back were 132 people who have been deemed "sexually violent predators" by a judge, who are forced to live under supervision at the Virginia Center for Behavioral Rehabilitation.

Several violent felons still serving time in prison also had their voting rights restored.

Sitting on the board of directors of New Virginia Majority are top officials of both the Laborers International Union of America and the Virginia AFL-CIO, two major unions that McAuliffe courted during his 2013 election.

Both LIUNA and AFL-CIO have officially endorsed Hillary Clinton for president.

Critics of McAuliffe’s order said its sole purpose has been to help Clinton in November.

"The singular purpose of Terry McAuliffe’s governorship is to elect Hillary Clinton president of the United States," said William Howell, the Republican speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, who is leading the legal fight to have the order reversed. "This office has always been a stepping stone to a job in Hillary Clinton’s cabinet."

Clinton praised McAuliffe after his executive order on felons was announced.