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Glenn Youngkin faces lawsuit over voter disenfranchisement

The ACLU is suing the Virginia governor for automatically disqualifying people who complete felony prison sentences from voting.

By Emily Singer - June 28, 2023
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Gov. Glenn Youngkin gives remarks on his proposed tax cut, Monday, Jan. 23, 2023, at Weinstein Jewish Community Center in Richmond, Va.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin gives remarks on his proposed tax cut, Monday, Jan. 23, 2023, at Weinstein Jewish Community Center in Richmond, Va. (Shaban Athuman/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)

The American Civil Liberties Union, the nonprofit organization Protect Democracy, and the law firm WiImerHale on Monday filed a lawsuit that seeks to block Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin from banning people convicted of certain felonies from voting after they have completed their prison sentences.

Virginia is one of a handful of states that have such felony disenfranchisement laws.

In 2021, former Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam took an executive action that restored the voting rights of 69,000 Virginians. According to a news release, Northam used “new eligibility criteria” to restore those voting rights. The release noted, “Governor Northam announced that going forward, any Virginian released from incarceration will qualify to have their rights restored, even if they remain on community supervision.”

Northam’s move followed actions by previous governors, including Republican Bob McDonnell and Democrat Terry McAuliffe, who also restored voting rights for those who had completed felony sentences. 

But after taking office in 2022, Youngkin quietly rolled back Northam’s practice of automatically restoring voting rights. Those released from prison upon completion of their sentence now have to file an application for consideration to have their voting rights restored, the Washington Post reported.

According to the Washington Post’s report, the number of Virginians who had their voting rights restored went from 3,500 people in the first few months after Youngkin took office to just 800 between May and October 2022.

“Governor Glenn Youngkin has recently unilaterally changed the process by which citizens of Virginia can ask for their voting rights to be restored,” Protect Democracy says on its website. “Unlike the process under recent Democratic and Republican Governors of Virginia, this new process is no longer automatic, but discretionary, and requires an individual application. Local lawmakers’ calls for transparency regarding the process and any changes made to the criteria have been met with little acknowledgement.”

The lawsuit argues that by denying some former felons the right to vote, Youngkin is violating the Virginia Readmission Act. The 1870 law blocks Virginia from “[depriving] any citizen or class of citizens of the right to vote by the Constitution herein recognized, except as a punishment for such crimes as are now felonies at common law.”

“Recognizing that former Confederate states were manipulating their criminal laws with the specific intent to disenfranchise Black citizens, the Readmission Acts explicitly prohibited former Confederate states from including within their constitutions any provision that disenfranchises their citizens for committing crimes that were not ‘now felonies at common law,'” the lawsuit says.

According to Protect Democracy: “Many modern-day felonies, such as drug crimes, are not crimes that were ‘felonies at common law’ as of 1870. But Virginia’s sweeping ban, which disenfranchises everyone convicted of any felony, was specifically crafted with the intent to disenfranchise the state’s Black citizens, and therefore violates federal law.”

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit — Tati King, Melvin Wingate, and Toni Johnson — completed prison sentences on drug-related and fraud charges, which are not “felonies at common law.”

“As a minister, I’m a firm believer in second chances and being able to vote would be a chance for me to participate fully in my community,” Wingate said in a news release announcing the lawsuit. “But since I was released in 2001, I’ve been unable to vote in five presidential elections, six midterm elections, and five Virginia gubernatorial elections.”

“I lost my right to vote because I was convicted of charges related to drug possession,” Johnson said. “But I’ve served my sentence. Being barred from voting amounts to a second sentence, especially since voting is a fundamental part of my ability to have a voice in decisions that better my life, my family’s lives, and my community.”

Fairfax County Commonwealth Attorney Steve Descano applauded the lawsuit.

“The formerly incarcerated should get their voting rights back automatically. No matter how ‘efficient’ ⁦⁦@GlennYoungkin⁩ makes the application process, that process is the problem,” Descano tweeted. “Glad ⁦@ACLUVA⁩ is suing to undo this vestige of Jim Crow.”

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.


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