HARRISONBURG — A federal judge in U.S. District Court in Harrisonburg sentenced a former James Madison University student to prison Tuesday for submitting false voter registration applications.
On June 20, Andrew J. Spieles, 21, formerly of Harrisonburg, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor fraud charge. Federal prosecutors say he caused 18 fraudulent voter registration forms to be submitted to the Harrisonburg registrar in connection with the Nov. 8 presidential election.
The plea agreement called for a prison sentence of 100 to 120 days, but U.S. Magistrate Judge Joel Hoppe rejected the deal during Tuesday’s hearing, saying that a lesser sentence might be warranted.
Hoppe, however, changed his mind and sentenced Spieles to 100 days. Spieles, who now lives in Stephens City, will report to prison at a later date determined by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
“This is a young man that has an unblemished background,” Hoppe said of the deal. “It was a one-time stupid act, but it undermines people’s confidence [in the voting system].”
Attorneys in the case say the sentence was negotiated so that Spieles would avoid a felony charge.
Before the judge’s ruling, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeb Terrien told Hoppe he should stick to the 100-day sentence.
Terrien said this case needs to send a message.
“This was national news for a very good reason,” he said. “His actions undermined citizens’ faith in our voter registration system.”
There is no indication that Spieles’ actions resulted in any fraudulent votes being cast.
Given the option to argue for a lesser sentence, Spieles’ attorney, Gene Hart, opted not to try to persuade the judge.
Hart said his client wanted to serve the time, rather than face a felony charge. He also said Spieles knows he did wrong.
“His actions highlight problems with the system that can be used to strategically do harm,” Hart told the judge.
Prosecutors say Spieles started registering voters in October 2015.
“In early 2016, he worked on Democratic primary voter registration drives. Spieles worked primarily with another individual (Witness #1) in January and February, registering over 2,000 people,” according to a statement of facts.
In April 2016, according to the document, he started working with New VA Majority, an Alexandria-based organization that holds registration drives, receiving $150 in compensation.
Three months later, he began working for HarrisonburgVotes, a group similar to New VA Majority, for $350 a week.
The city registrar’s office had become suspicious on Aug. 5 when it received a voter registration from the deceased father of a retired Rockingham County judge.
“The registrar’s office called the named individual’s family and confirmed that the named individual was deceased and that no one else with that name lived at the address listed on the registration form,” the statement of facts says.
The registrar’s office found 17 additional fraudulent forms, including five that carried names of the dead, according to local voting officials.
On Aug. 15, HarrisonburgVotes advised authorities that irregularities were found in forms submitted to its office.
HarrisonburgVotes co-founder Joe Fitzgerald said Spieles confessed on Aug. 15 and was terminated. Fitzgerald, a prominent Democrat and former Harrisonburg councilman and mayor, founded HarrisonburgVotes with lawyer Tom Domonoske, a former member of the nonpartisan Harrisonburg School Board.
During the sentencing hearing, Spieles testified about why he submitted the forms.
He told the judge that he was trying to help a woman who worked for the Democratic Party of Virginia.
Spieles said that he didn’t have a quota but the woman had “goals” she had to meet. He said they would combine their forms to increase both of their totals.
Spieles testified that a problem arose at the beginning of August. He said there were no large events that week, and finding people to register was difficult. As a result, they were having trouble meeting the woman’s goal.
He told the court that he filled out forms using “walk sheets,” or information given to volunteers canvassing neighborhoods. He used that data and combined it with information he made up to create fraudulent registration forms.
Spieles entered that information into the Democratic Party’s database and placed the forms into a folder.
Each Thursday, he brought forms to the registrar’s office. He planned to get rid of the fake ones but was late to work that Thursday, so someone else brought the forms to the office.
Spieles testified that he was especially hurt to find out three people he registered were dead. Letters were sent to each dead person’s home notifying them they had registered to vote.
“I feel awful for the families that received those letters,” he said, adding that he plans to apologize to each of those families.
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