Youngkin spikes restoration of voting rights

3/30/2023, 6 p.m.
The roughly 1,000 people a month released from Virginia prisons are no longer having their voting rights restored almost automatically.

The roughly 1,000 people a month released from Virginia prisons are no longer having their voting rights restored almost automatically.

Gov. Glenn A. Youngkin has reversed the state process that restored without any paperwork the right of former inmates to again cast ballots, serve on juries and run for office.

That policy began revving up 10 years ago under a Republican predecessor, Robert F. McDonnell, and had been expanded under two Democratic governors, Terry McAuliffe and Ralph S. Northam.

Despite insisting that he believes in second chances, Gov. Youngkin has returned to the practice of requiring felons to apply individually for restoration which he has the sole power to grant.

The governor’s decision became public last week in a response that Secretary of the Commonwealth Kay Coles James provided to a query from Chesapeake state Sen. Lionel Spruill Sr., chair of the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee.

Sen. Spruill sought the information after receiving concerns from a Northern Virginia senator, Scott Surovell, that the policy of automatic restoration of rights had been scrapped.

The Richmond Crusade for Voters is among those speaking out against the policy change.

In a statement issued this week, the city’s oldest and largest African-American political group argued that the policy change flouts Gov. Youngkin’s portrayal of himself “as a good Christian man”. ... God is the model of grace. So wouldn’t you think the governor would want to follow that model and grant that same grace and remove the barriers to full citizenship?”

In the statement, the Crusade noted that the governor has set “no criteria by which” applicants can know whether they will be eligible for restoration, returning to a haphazard system that existed before Gov. McDonnell.

The Crusade also stated that Gov. Youngkin’s action restores Virginia as the only state besides Kentucky that does not grant “full voter rights to ex-offenders” upon their release. “Surely we can do better.”

The General Assembly never assured the policy would continue no matter who was governor, with Republican members generally rejecting proposals for state constitutional amendments that would do so.

Gov. McDonnell’s initiative largely impacted non-violent offenders, whose rights were automatically restored if they had paid off their court debts and completed any probation or parole obligations.

Among the thousands Gov. McDonnell restored to full citizenship is current Portsmouth Delegate Don L. Scott Jr., the House minority leader, who served time for a federal drug conviction in the 1990s. Delegate Scott went on to earn a law degree and win election to the General Assembly as a result of the McDonnell initiative.

Gov. McDonnell’s successor, Terry McAuliffe, expanded the initiative to all offenders and ended the practice of requiring court debts to first be paid, restoring the rights of 173,000 people before leaving office.

His successor, Gov. Ralph S. Northam, scrapped any condition in restoring the rights of 124,000 people during his four-year term.

During the first three months after taking office in January 2022 when Gov. Northam’s approach remained intact, Gov. Youngkin restored the rights of 3,500 people, according to his administration’s report.

Gov. Youngkin changed the policy in May 2022, and rights restorations fell to just 800 between May and October and have continued to remain low since then — though he made it seem as if he was still behind his predecessor’s policy in issuing a press release just before the November 2022 election touting the more than 4,000 restorations he had accomplished since taking office.