The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Youngkin’s actions put the brakes on voting rights for former felons

Gov. Glenn Youngkin at Colonial Forge High School in Stafford, Va., on Sept. 1. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)
5 min

Norfolk resident King Kadian Divine recently saw a Facebook post about a policy change by Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) regarding the restoration of voting rights to people who have served time for felony offenses. The 32-year-old Mr. Divine spent more than a decade behind bars stemming from a 2008 robbery and had his rights restored after being released in 2021. He was concerned that the policy might affect his own situation, so he contacted American Civil Liberties Union policy strategist Shawn Weneta, who confirmed that he was okay.

Others like him who don’t make such an effort may decide to stay away from the polls for fear of running afoul of the law.

“To me, it is important solely because it gives you a voice, and when you’re talking about someone who, because of a mistake, might have been stripped of their voice, it gives a small fraction of that back,” says Mr. Divine. “It’s an esteem-builder to anyone who’s coming home.”

If only that sentiment prevailed in the executive mansion. Instead, Mr. Youngkin has embarked on a policy that appears to treat voting not as an urgent and fundamental right but rather as a perk that the state government can leave in bureaucratic limbo. We say “appears” here because the administration has passed up opportunity after opportunity to detail its policy, leaving the public unsure of the criteria on which their applications are judged.

Whatever the particulars of the current policy, they appear to upend more than a decade of bipartisan progress in rights restoration in Virginia. As governor, Robert F. McDonnell (R), who served from 2010 to 2014, streamlined the process and made whole about 8,000 people. Successors Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam, both Democrats, went further, enfranchising about 300,000. The impressive number of restorations under his leadership, Mr. McAuliffe claimed, was his “proudest achievement.”

As for Mr. Youngkin’s numbers? They’ve “fallen off a cliff,” as state Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax) put it in an email to commonwealth Secretary Kay Coles James. After his first several months in office last year, Mr. Youngkin issued a news release touting the restoration of rights to more than 3,400 Virginians — an outcome that suggested continuity with previous administrations. Over a five-month span (from May through October), however, the governor promulgated a mere 800 restorations.

Advocates and legislators are struggling to determine what happened. Sheba Williams, executive director of the advocacy group Nolef Turns, noticed this year that the application form for rights restoration had changed, adding fields for a question about whether the applicant had been convicted of a violent crime and paid all fines, fees and restitution. Explanations as to how the administration is processing — or not processing — the applications are scarce, however. “Apparently the ground has changed under our feet,” says Arina van Breda, a volunteer with the League of Women Voters. “You change the process, you do it secretly ... and it just seems very antidemocratic, frankly, and sneaky.”

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The response from officialdom teems with platitudes. Mr. Youngkin’s press secretary, Macaulay Porter, says the governor “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,” and notes that rights restoration applications are “assessed on an individual basis according to the law 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.” A letter from Ms. James to state Sen. Lionell Spruill Sr. (D-Chesapeake), chair of the Senate’s committee of privileges and elections, struck the same tone.

The lack of specificity means that stakeholders are forced to guess what’s happening. “What we have seen is nobody has been denied that I know of so far,” says Ms. Williams, “but people have been left in pending status for months.” The process also restores the right to run for public office, serve on a jury and become a notary public.

Mr. Youngkin’s slow-footed approach to rights restoration dredges up the memory of Virginia’s sordid history in this critical sphere. In a tweet responding to Mr. Youngkin’s policy, Mr. Surovell argued “we are back to 1902-era policy in VA” — a reference to a constitutional convention that broadened disenfranchisement grounds for those convicted of “treason or of any felony, bribery, petit larceny, obtaining money or property under false pretenses, embezzlement, forgery, or perjury.” A participant in that effort said the idea was to “eliminate every Negro voter who can be gotten rid of, legally, without materially impairing the numerical strength of the white electorate.” Among U.S. states, Virginia and Kentucky are alone in their extremism on felon disenfranchisement, according to an ACLU analysis.

Racist governing structures are, unfortunately, often built to endure. When Mr. McAuliffe in 2016 issued an executive order to re-enfranchise former felons en masse, the state Supreme Court struck down the effort on the grounds that the governor was required to proceed on a case-by-case basis.

It’s that individual requirement that the Youngkin administration cites when asked about the recent slowdown in approvals. Tossing out the requirement altogether — a critical step toward banishing the Jim Crow vestiges that still haunt the state — would take some doing: Any amendment to the state constitution requires approval by both houses in the state legislature in different sessions, separated by an election — and then approval by the voters on a general election ballot.

That’s a lot of work to keep the moral arc of the universe bending toward justice, as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. put it — and away from meddlers such as Mr. Youngkin.

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