WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Thursday, April 6, a disenfranchised individual with a past felony conviction and a nonprofit organization that supports formerly incarcerated individuals filed a federal lawsuit against Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) and Secretary of the Commonwealth Kay Cole James (R) challenging Virginia’s new felony disenfranchisement policy. Specifically, the plaintiffs challenge the Youngkin administration’s termination of the commonwealth’s previous policy instituted by former Gov. Ralph Northam (D) in which voting rights were automatically restored to Virginians with prior felony convictions in a uniform, non-discretionary manner upon release from incarceration. Under the commonwealth’s new scheme, voting rights are restored to Virginians with former felony convictions by the governor on a discretionary, case-by-case basis as opposed to automatically. According to the complaint, over the past decade, three successive Virginia governors progressively restored voting rights to individuals with prior felony convictions “based on specific, objective, and neutral criteria such as sentence completion or release from incarceration” in order to “create a uniformly administered, non-discretionary restoration system.” Under the Youngkin administration’s new scheme repealing the previous restoration policies, the plaintiffs allege that “Virginians with felony convictions are once again subject to an arbitrary restoration scheme, under which the Governor grants or denies applications for voting rights restoration in his unfettered discretion, without objective rules or criteria.”
The plaintiffs assert that in making voting rights restoration contingent on discretionary and arbitrary “decision-making” by an elected official upon whom no “definite time limits” to decide on an individual’s voting rights restoration are imposed, the defendants are violating the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Additionally, they argue that the lack of objective criteria for voting rights restoration “opens the door to political or viewpoint discrimination” based on an applicant’s political views, wealth, race, religion and other demographic factors. The plaintiffs underscore that as of October 2022, approximately 211,344 Virginians — constituting over 5% of the commonwealth’s voting-age population — remain disenfranchised “even after completing their full sentences including parole and probation.” In turn, the plaintiffs ask the court to prohibit the defendants from enforcing this allegedly arbitrary, discretionary voting rights restoration scheme and to replace it with a non-arbitrary, neutral alternative.
As other states, including Minnesota and New Mexico, are implementing crucial measures to restore voting rights to individuals with former felony convictions, Virginia is reverting back to an early 1900s-era policy by imposing one of the strictest felony disenfranchisement schemes in the country.