WASHINGTON, D.C. — Pro-voting groups are condemning Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s (R) administration after the state Department of Elections admitted to errantly and illegally removing an unknown number of eligible voters from the state’s rolls.
The Virginia Department of Elections (ELECT) conceded the illegal purge yesterday, saying it was working to rectify the error. According to VPM, a Virginia public media group, the problem appears to be a result of recent changes by ELECT intended to remove people from voter rolls if they committed a felony after their voting rights had previously been restored.
However, an unknown number of individuals removed in the purge, which rescinded the voting rights of more than 17,000 Virginians, had not committed a new felony, but rather were dealing with technical probation violations. A spokesperson for the Virginia State Police (VSP), which is responsible for reporting new felony convictions, confirmed that part of the VSP-provided data mistakenly included those with probation violations and promised to stop reporting felony probation violations.
In a statement issued yesterday, Susan Swecker, the chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Virginia, said the party “is calling for a full investigation into the weaponized incompetence of the Youngkin administration’s Department of Elections.” Swecker also highlighted that “[t]he decisions made by Youngkin and his administration have served to make this illegal purge anything but accidental,” and that the purge “is a criminal affront to the basic foundations of democracy.”
Shawn Weneta of the ACLU of Virginia additionally warned ELECT’s voter roll purge has “already had a chilling effect on Virginians’ participation in early voting.” The state is currently in its second week of early voting for the upcoming November elections.
Early last week, the ACLU of Virginia decried the cancellations, noting that the civil rights group received troubling reports “from Virginians that their voting rights were restored by past governors – both Republican and Democrat – only to be revoked again on the basis of technical probation violations.”
Youngkin’s approach to voting rights restoration is an outlier compared to his predecessors. Although Virginia automatically disenfranchises people for life after a felony conviction, the state’s three previous governors made continued progress on restoration. In 2013, former Gov. Robert McDonnell (R) automatically approved voting rights restoration for those convicted of non-violent felonies after serving their entire sentence.
In 2016, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) built on that policy, expanding rights restoration to all individuals after they complete their sentences. And in 2021, former Gov. Ralph Northam (D) changed the timeline for restoration to when an individual previously convicted of a felony is released from incarceration, as opposed to when they complete their probation and parole. Across the three administrations, over 300,000 individuals regained voting rights.
But the policies enacted by former Virginia governors have ceased under Youngkin, who changed state policy in March 2022 to require restoration on a case-by-case basis. According to VPM, between August 2022 and September 2023, ELECT reinstated 2,667 individuals to voter rolls, a steep decline from the 32,398 voters reinstated between 2020 and 2021 under Northam administration.
Two lawsuits are currently challenging Virginia’s felony disenfranchisement law. One filed by Bridging The Gap In Virginia and three Virginia residents who are disenfranchised due to former felony convictions, argues that as a result of the law “an estimated 312,540 Virginians are disenfranchised, rendering Virginia the state with the fifth highest number of citizens disenfranchised for felony convictions, and the sixth highest rate of disenfranchisement.”
The plaintiffs allege the felony disenfranchisement provision violates the Virginia Readmission Act of 1870, which only allows Virginia to disenfranchise its citizens if they were convicted of crimes that were considered “felonies at common law” during the enactment of the law in 1870, including murder, manslaughter, arson, burglary, robbery, rape, sodomy, mayhem and larceny.
Another lawsuit, filed by a disenfranchised voter with a former felony conviction and a nonprofit organization that supports formerly incarcerated individuals, alleges 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.”
Virginia is the only state in the country that automatically disenfranchises individuals convicted of any felony for life unless restored by the governor.