By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
When he was Governor from 2010-2014 Conservative Republican Bob McDonnell issued an order automatically restoring the rights of convicted felons, after they were released from state prisons.
After he left office liberal Democrat chief executives Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam followed suit.
Now Democratic State Lawmakers, the NAACP, and other Civil Rights groups are critical of current Conservative Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin for backing away from the policy.
Governor Youngkin recently changed the state policy, and now requires formerly incarcerated people to apply for their voting rights. In recent years, the restoration was automatic.
Opponents of his decision say they believe there is a lack of transparency within the Youngkin administration regarding this policy.
Democrat State Senator Lionell Spruill, who represents parts of Chesapeake and Norfolk, is leading the charge to express opposition and concern for the Governor’s action.
As Senate Privileges and Elections Committee Chair, Spruill is demanding answers from Governor Youngkin on how the application process will work.
“It deeply concerns me when the core rights I have been fighting for all my life are being rolled back,” said Senator Spruill, in a press release to the media last week.
“Once you have served your time, your rights should be restored for non-violent felons. Period,” Spruill said. “As Chairman of the Privileges and Elections Committee, I will fight against this secret process and secret set of rules that the Governor is using to decide who can be denied the right to vote. Elections have consequences, and I will continue to fight back against the rollback of these rights.”
Spruill and other opponents of the Governor’s decision said they are worried this will keep many former inmates from voting without clear guidelines on how it will work.
“There’s no clarity. There’s no transparency in this,” ACLU-VA Policy and Advocacy Strategist Shawn Weneta said. “This administration ran on clarity and transparency.”
Weneta knows firsthand the importance of getting the opportunity to vote after being released from jail. He had his rights restored in 2021 after serving 16 years in prison.
“It certainly puts a lot of people in limbo. There are no criteria set out,” Weneta said. “If they said, ‘these are the people that would qualify, and if you have either maybe not completed your probation or perhaps you were convicted of this certain type of crime,’ none of that is laid out in the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s memo.”
In a letter to Spruill, Secretary of the Commonwealth Kay Cole James explains that every discharged inmate will be given a paper application for restoration that will be considered individually. As a follow up, they are required to check their status online.
The restoration process began under Governor McDonnell, resulting in thousands winning their rights. Then in 2014, Governor McAuliffe and then Secretary of the Commonwealth, Levar Stoney worked to improve processes, streamlining the application process, which was then continued by Governor Northam, who restored rights for over 126,000 people before he left office.
Governor Youngkin’s spokeswoman Macaulay Porter released a statement regarding this change in restoring voting rights:
“The Governor firmly believes in the importance of second chances for Virginians who have made mistakes but are working to move forward as active members of our citizenry. The Constitution places the responsibility to consider Virginians for restoration in the hands of the Governor alone, and he does not take this lightly.
“Restoration of rights is assessed on an individual basis, according to the law and takes into consideration the unique elements of each situation, practicing grace for those who need it and ensuring public safety for our community and families.
“The Department of Corrections and the Secretary of the Commonwealth work with the appropriate agencies to restore an individual’s rights.”
Stoney, who is now the Mayor of Richmond said in a statement:
“Removing the automatic restoration of rights is a major step backward for the Commonwealth of Virginia. By doing so, Governor Youngkin is intentionally adding red tape to further disenfranchise returning citizens. As elected officials, we should always strive to find better ways to serve ALL Virginians, which is what the prior three administrations did. The lack of compassion and transparency out of the Youngkin Administration is regression at its finest – I expected more from the highest elected seat in the Commonwealth.”
“We know over 10 percent of African-Americans over the age of 18 are presently disenfranchised due to felony convictions,” NAACP VA President Robert Barnette said.
Barnette echoed that the criteria needs to be explained so people of color can have the necessary information.
The NAACP said that “Virginia and Kentucky are the only states that permanently deny voting rights to those who have been convicted of a crime.”
Sen. Spruill, in a letter to Secretary James on March 17 said Youngkin was using unknown criteria for the restoration process and highlighting a reduction in the number of people who have had their voting rights restored under his administration.
In Virginia, people lose their right to vote, run for office, and have other civil rights revoked when convicted of a felony and must petition the governor to regain them. People need to petition the courts to restore their firearms rights.
In 2021, Democratic Ralph Northam removed the requirement that Virginians with felony convictions have to finish being under community supervision – parole or probation – before having their voting rights restored.
These policies ended with the changes from Youngkin’s administration.
During the 2022 legislative session, Republicans blocked a proposal to make ex-felon voting rights restoration automatic.
Last May, the governor’s office announced that nearly 3,500 people had their voting rights restored under Youngkin. But, last October, the next batch of Virginians who regained their voting rights dropped to over 800.