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Voting Rights Restoration for Virginia Ex-Felons Once Again Subject to Governor’s Whim

by Kevin W. Bliss

In a letter to Virginia lawmakers on March 22, 2023, Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) took executive action to roll back voting rights restoration to ex-felons. It is the fourth time since 2013 that a governor has modified procedures. State Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Mount Vernon) said the move makes restoration “a secret process with secret criteria in the complete absolute discretion of the Governor,” setting the state “back to 1902-era policy.”

In 2013, former Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) announced that all nonviolent offenders would be granted voter rights restoration upon completion of their sentence, including any period of probation or parole. In 2016, his successor, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), expanded that policy to include all ex-felons. And his successor, former Gov. Ralph Northam (D), expanded that again in 2021, scrapping the requirement to complete any probationary period after release from prison. It became almost automatic that an ex-offender had voting rights restored as soon as he or she was released from prison.

But while campaigning for office that year, Youngkin pointed to the moves to criticize his opponent, McAuliffe, who was running for office again. (Virginia does not allow governors to serve consecutive terms.)

Prisoner rights advocates criticized the new policy for reinstating a policy that will discriminate against Black Virginians. They also worry that it vests too much power in the Governor to decide restoration. Plus it revives an intrusive and discriminatory application asking such immaterial questions as how many children the individual has by different partners.

Automatic rights restoration is what politicians in many states have been trying to legislate for some time now. But, as Youngkin’s policy change proves, unless the right is codified by law, it can easily be erased by subsequent executive action.

A lawsuit filed in federal court for the Eastern District of Virginia by attorneys Terry Frank, Charles H. Schmidt, Jr. and others with the Fair Election Center on April 6, 2023, challenges Youngkin’s “secretive and arbitrary voting rights restoration scheme for people with felony convictions.” See: Nolef Turns, Inc. v. Youngkin, USDC (E.D. Va.), Case No. 3:23-cv-00232.

A separate suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on June 26, 2023, claims the governor’s action runs afoul of the Readmission Act of 1870 that let Virginia, the former capital of the Confederacy, back into the United States. See: King v. Youngkin, USDC (E.D. Va.), Case No. 3:23-cv-00408.

One applicant who wished to remain anonymous to avoid reprisal bemoaned the governor’s move for preventing her from participating in her state’s government. “It makes me feel like I’m not a citizen,” she said. “I did the time for the crime, but I still have lost my rights. I don’t know if I’ll ever get them back or not.” 

Additional sources: AP News, Bolts Magazine