The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Va. Gov. Youngkin restores voting rights to thousands of ex-felons

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R). (Steve Helber/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

RICHMOND — Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a conservative Republican who has typically projected a tough-on-crime image, announced Friday that he has restored voting and other civil rights to 3,496 ex-felons.

“I am encouraged that over 3,400 Virginians will take this critical first step towards vibrant futures as citizens with full civil rights,” Youngkin said in a written statement. “Individuals with their rights restored come from every walk of life and are eager to provide for themselves, their families and put the past behind them for a better tomorrow.”

In most states, convicted felons automatically regain the right to vote upon the completion of their sentences. Virginia is one of 11 that permanently strip citizens of the right to vote upon conviction of a felony, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Felons here also lose the right to possess a firearm, hold public office, serve on a jury or as a notary.

But the Virginia Constitution gives the governor the power to restore most of those rights once a felon has completed his or her sentence. The one exception is firearms rights, which only a Circuit Court judge can restore.

Virginia governors of both parties have taken steps over the past decade to make it easier for felons to regain the right to vote, starting with Republican Robert F. McDonnell, a former prosecutor who championed the cause as a moral issue, and greatly picking up speed under Democrats Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam.

McDonnell intervened in several thousand cases before leaving office in 2014. McAuliffe restored voting and other civil rights to about 173,000 felons. Northam did so for more than 111,000 former prisoners and championed a proposed constitutional amendment that would have automatically restored voting rights for felons upon completion of their incarceration.

The measure passed the General Assembly last year, when Democrats controlled the state House and Senate, but it hit a roadblock once Republicans took control of the House in January.

To amend the constitution, the legislature must pass legislation two years in a row — with an election in between — and then win approval from voters in a referendum. The measure died in a Republican-controlled House committee this year, despite bipartisan support.

Youngkin’s action to restore rights presents a softer image of the new governor, who stressed law-and-order themes during his campaign last year against McAuliffe, who was seeking a comeback. Youngkin sharply criticized Northam for the state Parole Board’s decision, at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, to release some aging violent offenders, including a man who’d served decades for killing a Richmond police officer.

“The restoration of rights process provides a fresh step forward for individuals who have made mistakes, but have done their duty to our community and wish to be full and productive citizens of our Commonwealth,” Kay Coles James, who handles rights restoration requests as Youngkin’s secretary of the commonwealth, said in a written statement. “I look forward to their successful futures.”

The administration will restore rights “on an ongoing basis,” according to the announcement from Youngkin’s office, which invited ex-felons seeking to have their rights restored to visit