Virginia Governor Pauses Automatic Voting Rights Restoration

WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Wednesday, March 22, Virginia Secretary of the Commonwealth Kay Coles James (R) sent a letter to state lawmakers outlining the administration’s plan to pause automatic voting rights restoration for people with felony convictions. In requiring restoration on a case-by-case basis, Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) is repealing the policy of his predecessors and effectively reverting Virginia to a 1902-era lifetime ban on voting for all individuals convicted of felonies.

Virginia’s constitution disenfranchises people for life after a felony conviction; however, the previous three governors streamlined voting rights restoration. In 2013, Gov. Robert McDonnell (R) automatically approved rights restoration for people convicted of non-violent felonies after the completion of their entire sentence. Democratic Govs. Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam built upon that policy: In 2016, McAuliffe expanded rights restoration to all individuals after the completion of their sentences and in 2021, Northam moved forward the restoration timeline from after the completion of a sentence, which includes probation and parole, to after release from incarceration. Over 300,000 individuals regained voting rights during this period.

On March 17, 2023 state Sen. Lionell Spruill (D), the Chairman of the Privileges and Elections Committee, sent a letter to the Youngkin administration requesting more information on apparent policy changes. “When did the Governor change the process implemented by the Northam Administration?” the letter reads. “What public relations efforts did the Administration engage in to notify the public of this change?”

In response to Spruill, James notes that Youngkin decided on a new procedure — “that every applicant be considered individually” — after his inauguration, which took place over a year ago.

“Virginians trust the Governor and his Administration to consider each person individually and take into consideration the unique elements of each situation,” the letter concludes, without noting the specific basis by which the administration will determine which applications to approve. According to reporting by Bolts, a 2023 version of the application form requests individuals to note whether they were convicted of a nonviolent or violent felony and whether they have outstanding court fees and fines, though the Youngkin administration has not indicated how they are using such information.

By ending his predecessors’ policies, Youngkin is implementing one of the strictest felony disenfranchisement laws in the country. 

Read Virginia Secretary of the Commonwealth Kay Coles James’ letter here.