Waynesboro: Will her first vote be counted?

The Top Story by Chris Graham
freepress2@ntelos.net

Sonja Hoge was very much looking forward to voting in her first presidential election. A Waynesboro High School graduate and Virginia Commonwealth University sophomore, Hoge submitted an absentee-ballot request in August before she went back to school and got it in the mail back to Waynesboro last week.

But in the meantime, she filled out another form that a political organizer on campus at VCU said she needed to have on record related to her absentee ballot that turned out to be a voter-registration application that when it was filed put her on the voter rolls in Richmond.

Which brings us back to her absentee ballot now sitting in the hands of Waynesboro voter registrar Mary Alice Downs. The act of putting it in the mail back toward the River City has resulted in a flurry of phone calls and e-mails and a visit to Hoge’s apartment by the Virginia State Police and the FBI earlier this week that has not only put the status of the absentee ballot in question but also possibly subjected Hoge to criminal charges.

“They said they wanted to make sure that I didn’t vote twice,” Hoge said by phone from Richmond yesterday of the questions from investigators from the State Police and the FBI, who were enlisted in an investigation of what was basically a paperwork snafu at the request of the Virginia State Board of Elections. This I found out after talking this morning with Downs in Waynesboro, who said she had contacted the State Board after receiving word from the registrar’s office in Richmond that Hoge had been registered there, and she saw Hoge’s name on the list of those who had received absentee ballots.

Downs had first attempted to contact Hoge at a phone number listed on her registration application that was no longer in service, then tried to reach her via e-mails in an effort to verify her voting status. Hoge said she received the e-mails but thought they were suspicious because of the way they were worded and because the second e-mail addressed her as “Sarah,” not “Sonja.” “Those e-mails were so unprofessional, with spelling errors, with no other identifying information, that they looked like they were something that somebody was trying to make look official, but they couldn’t quite do it right,” said Lorie Strother, Sonja Hoge’s mother, who forwarded me copies of the e-mails.

The first, dated Oct. 13, could have come across as confusing because it began, “I am having difficulty sending your absentee ballot,” and Hoge had already received her ballot and was in the process of getting it back to Waynesboro. The second, dated Oct. 15, began, ominously, “Sarah? You could be in big trouble,” and went on to suggest that because Hoge had requested an absentee ballot and then was registered in Richmond that she could be guilty of “voter fraud.” “I would appreciate your response and some answers as soon as possible. Problems like this are being investigated by FBI … ,” the e-mail went on.

When Downs didn’t hear back from Hoge with answers to her questions, she contacted the State Board of Elections, who made the call, Downs said, to turn the matter over to the State Police. The visit from the State Police and FBI on Wednesday didn’t seem to Hoge to be focused as much on “voter fraud” as on trying to learn more about the organization that turned in the voter-registration application that caused the trouble in the first place. “They wanted me to notify them if people were telling us that we could vote twice. That’s what they seemed to be interested in. They asked a lot of questions about who it was that had gotten me to fill out this other form,” Hoge said.

“This is just strange to me,” Strother said. “This can’t be the first time that somebody filled out the wrong paperwork and something like this happened. Do they send the FBI and State Police out to knock on people’s doors every time something like this comes up? It doesn’t make any sense,” Strother said.

This story is working out in the direction of something of a happy ending. Hoge and Strother have been in contact with the registrar’s offices in Richmond and in Waynesboro to try to get the situation resolved so that Hoge’s absentee ballot in Waynesboro will be counted, and after talking with Downs this morning, it seems that as long as Hoge is successful in getting her name removed from the voter rolls in Richmond and can provide evidence of that in writing to Downs in Waynesboro, then her vote will be official.

But Strother can’t help but be at least a little concerned at how the system has worked, or not worked, in this case. “Sonja should have paid attention to what she was filling out. But to have the State Police knocking on your door for something like this?” Strother said. “And the thing that really bothers me about this is, how many other people are going to just not going to have their votes counted and not even know that this is going on? If Sonja hadn’t been approached by the State Police, she never would have known that there was an issue in Waynesboro. How many other votes get lost in the shuffle?” Strother said.

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