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Virginia “Voting Rights Restoration” Process May Be a Form of Voter Suppression

“Modern voter suppression is like death by a million cuts,” one voting rights advocate told Truthout.

Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin attends the grand opening ceremony for Amazon HQ2 on June 15, 2023, in Arlington, Virginia.

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Records received in response to a lawsuit pertaining to Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s (R) voting rights restoration process expose that the process is completely lacking in consistency or clear standards, preventing thousands of returning citizens from participating in Virginia’s ongoing elections.

The lawsuit was brought by the Virginia State Conference NAACP (Virginia NAACP) and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

“Our investigation has revealed the grave injustice Governor Youngkin is inflicting upon Virginia’s returning citizens, who are disproportionately Black Virginians,” Virginia NAACP President Robert N. Barnette Jr. said in a statement. “This cannot be allowed to continue — we demand that the governor end this discriminatory policy and restore the rights of all current and future applicants without equivocation and without further delay.”

In Virginia, a felony conviction automatically results in the loss of certain rights, including a person’s right to vote. The governor has the sole discretion to restore these rights to Virginians.

“Felony disenfranchisement is a relic of Jim Crow, and was one of many forms of voter suppression intended to prevent Black Americans from voting,” Ryan Snow, counsel with the Voting Rights Project of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told Truthout. “Today, approximately one out of every six Black Virginians of voting age are disenfranchised by reason of past felony conviction, compared to just one out of every 17 voting-age Virginians overall.”

Youngkin’s administration recently shifted away from the previous administration’s policy of an automatic rights restoration system.

“The previous three governors — including both Democratic and Republican governors — chose to adopt and implement processes that provided for the speedy restoration of voting rights for all or nearly all returning citizens upon completion of their sentences,” Snow told Truthout. “Governor Youngkin has instead chosen to adopt a process that has restored rights to only a small fraction of those eligible, leaving thousands and perhaps tens of thousands of returning Virginia citizens without a voice in our democracy.”

While Youngkin announced that his administration would be restoring rights on an ongoing basis, with more than 3,496 Virginians having their civil rights restored in May, opponents have criticized the process as being opaque and potentially discriminatory.

“This decision will have a severe racially discriminatory impact on Black Virginians in particular — an impact which will further compound already significant socioeconomic disparities by further depriving Black communities of an equal voice in Virginia elections and the resulting policy decisions,” Snow told Truthout.

At least three lawsuits have been filed so far challenging what critics believe is an unconstitutional and non-transparent process. One lawsuit attests that this policy could lead to decisions based on an applicant’s political affiliations or views, in violation of the First Amendment.

“Modern voter suppression is like death by a million cuts — erecting administrative and other barriers at every turn to make it harder for certain voters to successfully cast their ballot, which disproportionately affects voters of color in Virginia and across the nation,” Snow told Truthout.

In May, Virginia NAACP submitted a Virginia Freedom of Information Act (VFOIA) request due to concerns that Youngkin’s restoration of rights process lacked clear criteria for deciding whether to restore an individual’s right to vote. The Virginia NAACP sued Youngkin and his administration to obtain these public records after they were unlawfully withheld by the governor.

The public records, which were granted to the Virginia NAACP and to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in response to their lawsuit, “underscore the arbitrariness of the process, with Governor Youngkin apparently failing to follow even what little his administration has shared publicly about the purported bases for his decisions,” the groups said in a shared press release.

One of the documents provided shows that a nonviolent offender’s application for restoration of voting rights was denied without explanation. This denial contradicts public statements by the Youngkin administration in July that nonviolent offenders would be given “priority.”

“The applicant is told simply that the governor has sole discretion whether to grant or deny their application, and that they may reapply after one year — implying the result might be different the second time around — yet they are given no information whatsoever about why the result might be different should they do so, nor any steps they can take themselves that might result in a different outcome the second time around,” Snow told Truthout. “The evidence is clear: Governor Youngkin has chosen to adopt a system where he and he alone gets to pick and choose who may have their rights restored.”

In October, voting groups condemned Youngkin’s administration for purging more than 17,000 eligible voters who were illegally removed from the state’s rolls as a result of the policy changes that aimed to remove people from voter rolls who had had their right to vote restored but had later been convicted of a new felony.

Voting rights groups have also received reports from affected voters that, upon reinstatement to the voter rolls, they were provided confusing, incorrect, and potentially intimidating information from local registrars about their eligibility, which could deter them from voting.

“Any uncertainty about a voter’s eligibility could have the effect of dissuading them from voting, so it is concerning that at least some registrars are contributing to this uncertainty — and that the state has apparently failed to provide clear, uniform guidance to local registrars about how to ensure all affected voters are receiving correct information and that they are able to cast their ballot without issue,” Snow told Truthout.

Virginia election officials have also recently admitted to wrongfully removing almost 3,400 eligible voters from the state’s voter rolls, just days before critical state elections that will determine which party controls the state legislature.

“Everyone deserves a voice in our democracy,” Snow told Truthout. “There is no place for felony disenfranchisement in 2023, much less a system with no publicly stated criteria for restoring voting rights when affected individuals return to their communities, and when the record now shows clearly is being applied inconsistently and at such a slow pace that thousands will be disenfranchised before their applications are even considered.”

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