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NAACP Virginia calls for clear voting rights restoration criteria

A person wearing glasses stands in front of posters that say "VOTE"
Crixell Matthews
VPM News Fle
NAACP Virginia President Robert Barnette said at a Tuesday press conference that Gov. Glenn Youngkin's voting rights restoration policy is unclear and could lead to racial discrimination.

The group offered policy suggestions during a Tuesday press conference at the Bell Tower.

After taking office in 2022, Gov. Glenn Youngkin changed a process implemented by his predecessors to more quickly restore voting rights for people convicted of felonies — the Virginia branch of the NAACP has taken notice.

Former Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell ended Virginia’s policy of permanently revoking the voting rights of people with felony convictions in 2013, creating a system that automatically restored voting rights to people who meet certain criteria. The next two governors — Democrats Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam — further broadened those guidelines during their respective terms.

Youngkin has seemingly ended this trend of increased enfranchisement — quietly returning to a system that requires every individual to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

This change provoked a federal lawsuit earlier this year, but the Youngkin administration has not yet instituted any explicit changes. During a Tuesday press conference, the Virginia State Conference NAACP spoke out against the lack of transparency surrounding the policy.

“Governor Youngkin has chosen to implement a new process — a process that was created in secret and operates entirely behind closed doors — to arbitrarily pick and choose who will have their voting rights restored,” said NAACP Virginia President Robert N. Barnette Jr. Tuesday morning at the Bell Tower in Richmond.

Barnette said his organization is concerned that without clear guidelines in place, this gubernatorial power could lead to discrimination against Black Virginians and other Virginians of color.

To investigate the administration’s processes for voting rights restoration, NAACP Virginia submitted a public records request on May 9, 2023.

“The documents revealed a lack of standards or criteria for the restoration of rights of Virginians with past felony convictions,” Barnette wrote in a letter sent to the governor on Tuesday. “We are deeply concerned about the possibility that an applicant’s race, voting history, geographic location, or socioeconomic status may be determinative in whether their application is denied.”

Tuesday’s press conference came after Youngkin’s secretary of the commonwealth, Kay Cole James, sent a letter to the NAACP on Monday about the policy. In the letter, James denied that race would be considered in voting rights decisions.

“Governor Youngkin and I both guarantee that these factors play absolutely no role in the process or the serious decisions that we make on behalf of returning citizens,” James said.

Ryan Snow — NAACP legal representative and attorney for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law — argued that this move by Youngkin represents a regression in policy that harkens back to post-Reconstruction-era law. Snow pointed to the state’s 1902 Constitutional Convention, during which Virginia adopted the policy of disenfranchising people convicted of felonies.

“During the 1902 Constitutional Convention, multiple assembly men explicitly said that felony disenfranchisement will preserve white supremacy in the commonwealth of Virginia — and that it’s specifically designed to keep Black Virginians from voting,” said Snow. “This governor has resurrected the original version of this law.”

The shift away from the automatic approval system has also slowed down the rights restoration process.

“In 2021, there were about 90,000 people who had their rights restored. And in prior years, it was about 15 to 20,000 each year,” said Snow. “In 2022, there were just over 4,000 — and most of those were in the first half of the year. I think it’s fair to say that that is a dramatic slowdown.”

NAACP Virginia also presented a list of policy proposals for Youngkin emphasizing transparency, fairness, and efficiency.

“If Virginia’s democracy is to live up to its promises — and leave its racist history behind — the process for the restoration of voting rights must have clear standards, those standards must be clearly communicated to the public and to rights restoration applicants themselves, and all applications must be considered fairly and promptly,” Barnette said.

Barnette added that Youngkin has previously expressed support for reinstating voting rights — citing a quote from the governor that calls voting rights restoration a “critical first step towards [formerly incarcerated people’s] vibrant futures as citizens with full civil rights.”

“His process for restoring voting rights utterly fails to live up to these lofty ideals,” said Barnette.

In Monday’s letter, Secretary James said the changes made by the Youngkin administration reflect a 2016 ruling by the Virginia Supreme Court that requires a “case-by-case determination considering the unique aspects of every case.”

James also pushed back on claims that the rights restoration process is moving slowly.

“While our process slowed to accommodate the mandatory directive of the Supreme Court, we have made serious progress to reduce wait times after application and are working to rollout increased process transparency,” James wrote.

This debate over enfranchisement will become increasingly pressing as Election Day approaches. All 140 seats in the state’s legislature are up for grabs this November.

“Justice delayed is justice denied — especially during the elections context,” said Snow.

Virginia is now the only state that permanently disenfranchises people with felony convictions, barring an individual review by the governor’s office, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.