A Stafford County man pleaded guilty to election fraud yesterday, becoming the first person in Virginia to be convicted of the felony as part of a recent statewide effort to purge registration rolls of illegal voters.

Michael Williams, 45, who had previous convictions for drug and firearms violations, was sentenced to three years, but the sentence was suspended as part of an agreement with prosecutors.

Commonwealth's Attorney Richard F. Gibbons Jr. said Williams falsely claimed he was not a convicted felon on a "motor-voter" registration form when he was applying for a driver's license. But Gibbons said he did not believe Williams intentionally marked the wrong box on the form, noting that he correctly completed a form the previous year and that he did not vote.

Although Williams signed the forms, family members helped him fill them out because he has trouble reading, said defense attorney Jim Ilijevich.

"He clearly made a fraudulent statement," Gibbons said. "But my thinking is that he was confused by [the form]. His motive was to make sure he would get a new driver's license."

Virginia is one of 14 states that do not allow felons to vote after they have completed their sentences.

Election officials say the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, which allows voters to register through state agencies such as motor vehicle departments, has made it more difficult to check the accuracy of records and has led to an increase of illegally registered voters.

Williams's case was the first to go to trial in Virginia as a result of the new enforcement effort, which was launched after a state report last year said registration rolls were inaccurate.

The report said more than 11,000 felons and 1,500 dead people were registered to vote. But election officials later found that was an overstatement. Another review found the number of felons on the rolls to be 300 to 400, and it found that none of the deceased people identified in the initial report were on registration rolls after all, said Hugh Key, deputy secretary of the State Board of Elections.

The issue of improper voter registration is "not as big of a priority" as it was last year, Key said. He said he did not believe the outcome of any election had been affected by illegal voters.