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Youngkin requires people convicted of felonies to apply for voting rights

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin speaks to members of the press inside the Rotunda of the state Capitol building on Feb. 25 in Richmond. (John C. Clark/AP)
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RICHMOND — Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) has changed state policy for restoring civil rights to people who serve time for a felony conviction, greatly reducing the number of former inmates who regain the right to vote.

Youngkin canceled a practice begun by a Republican predecessor, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, of automatically restoring rights for at least some former inmates once their sentence is complete. Instead, each person must file an application and will be considered on a case-by-case basis, Secretary of the Commonwealth Kay Coles James said Wednesday in a letter to a key senator.

McDonnell to expedite rights restoration process for non-violent felons

Former inmates “are informed upon release [from custody] the recommendation of applying and given a paper application,” James wrote in a letter to Sen. Lionel Spruill Sr. (D-Chesapeake), the chairman of the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee, who had written last week requesting information about the process. (Ex-inmates can also apply online.)

Virginia and Kentucky are the only states that permanently disenfranchise anyone convicted of a felony, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. A handful of other states limit voting access for those convicted of certain felonies.

In Virginia, the only way someone convicted of a felony can win back their rights is to petition the governor. In recent years, Democrats in the General Assembly have proposed a constitutional amendment to make rights restoration automatic. Although it had some bipartisan support, the measure died this year in the Republican-controlled House of Delegates.

In 2013, McDonnell began loosening the policy, saying he believed in redemption and second chances. The governor allowed people convicted of certain nonviolent felonies who completed their sentences and met other qualifications to automatically have their rights restored. Thousands won their rights back.

Among them: Del. Don L. Scott Jr. (D-Portsmouth), who had served time for a federal drug-related conviction in the 1990s. Once McDonnell restored his rights, Scott went on to pass the state bar exam and now serves as minority leader in the House of Delegates.

McDonnell’s successor, Democrat Terry McAuliffe, tried to restore the rights of tens of thousands of felons en masse before the state Republican Party took him to court. The Virginia Supreme Court ruled that rights could be restored only on an individual basis. So McAuliffe signed off on about 173,000 cases, one by one.

High court invalidates McAuliffe's order restoring felon voting rights

Democrat Ralph Northam scrapped the requirement that those convicted of a felony complete parole before winning their rights back. He restored rights to more than 126,000 people before leaving office.

With Northam’s protocol in place, Youngkin restored voting rights to about 3,500 people in the first months after he took office in 2022, according to a mandatory report his administration filed with the state Senate last month.

But the same report shows that for May to October, the number of people whose rights were restored had dwindled to around 800, suggesting that he had changed Northam’s protocol — although Youngkin trumpeted those numbers in a news release shortly before last fall’s elections as he encouraged people to vote.

Early this year, Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax) said he began hearing from constituents who work in state voter registration that ex-inmates did not seem to be getting their rights restored in the same numbers and the process seemed unclear. He inquired with Spruill, who sent the letter to James.

“It deeply concerns me when the core rights I have been fighting for all my life are being rolled back,” Spruill said Thursday in an emailed statement about the letter. “Once a non-violent felon has served their time, their rights should be restored. Period ... I will fight against this secret process and secret set of rules that the Governor is using to decide who can be given the right to vote.”

Surovell said James’s reply raised more questions than it answered.

“It sounds like the governor has created a new secret process in secret that he didn’t tell anybody about,” Surovell said. “This sounds like a restoration policy from the 1960s or something.”

He said the administration did not disclose what criteria a former inmate would have to meet, did not explain whether they would have to complete parole, and did not disclose how many people have had their rights restored so far this year.

A spokeswoman for the administration did not respond to those questions from a reporter on Wednesday. On Monday, in remarks to reporters at an unrelated event, Youngkin was not specific about the criteria he was using.

“The first thing we’re doing is providing every applicant a full review,” he said. He noted that James is in charge of the process.

“Everyone gets a full review and that is our responsibility and that is what we’ve been doing,” Youngkin said.

In her letter to Spruill, James noted that “every applicant is different” and said she works with the Virginia State Police, Departments of Elections and Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, and other agencies “to research each application and provide further information to be used in the consideration process.”

Youngkin “firmly believes in the importance of second chances,” James wrote. “Virginians trust the Governor and his Administration to consider each person individually and take into consideration the unique elements of each situation, practicing grace for those who need it and ensuring public safety for our community and families.”

Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.