Saying Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s new policy echoes Virginia’s racist past, the state conference of the NAACP on Tuesday released a platform of proposed changes to the way the commonwealth restores voting rights to ex-felons.
Youngkin’s policy “has negatively impacted those who have done what the justice system has asked them to do and have reentered society working for a second chance,” NAACP Virginia State Conference President Robert Barnette Jr. said at a news conference Tuesday.
Virginia has seen “a dramatic slowdown” in the number of felons released from prison whose voting rights have been restored since Youngkin took office, Barnette added.
More than 300,000 people have had their voting rights restored under Youngkin’s three predecessors of both parties; fewer than 4,000 people saw them restored last year, and Barnette said the pace is slower this year.
“In prior administrations, the policy has been to restore the voting rights of returning citizens as a matter of course and under clear standards made available to the public,” Barnette said.
“Governor Youngkin’s painfully slow and opaque process is sure to have a discriminatory impact on Black Virginians and other Virginians of color,” he added.
Barnette also said, “This new policy has negatively impacted those who have done what the justice system has asked them to do and have reentered society working for a second chance.”
The NAACP is proposing that the Youngkin administration make its criteria and processes clear to the public and to applicants.
Its platform calls for a “clear and public statement” of the standards Youngkin uses in making decisions about restoration of voting rights, as well as the kind of information used in reviewing applications, as well as “clear and public assurance” that race, voting history, and other factors that could lead to a racial disparity are not being taken into account — including details about what active steps the administration is taking to ensure there are no disparities.
Applicants for voting rights restoration would get:
- Clear guidance on what’s required in their applications;
- Direction on what other steps they may need to take to help their chances of success; and
- A commitment that “nominal or immaterial errors” can be cured, and won’t be the sole reason for a rejection.
If an application is rejected, the NAACP calls for the administration to provide clear explanations for denials, any possible appeals and any steps the applicant could take to successfully re-apply.
The NAACP platform also calls for the establishment of a hotline or online dashboard to check on the status of an application; a 120-day maximum time frame for making restoration decisions; and monthly public disclosures of the number of applications received, granted, and denied.
The Virginia Constitution says, “No person who has been convicted of a felony shall be qualified to vote unless his civil rights have been restored by the Governor or other appropriate authority.”
Under Youngkin’s predecessors of both parties, voting rights were restored under automatic formulas as long as they met certain criteria — criteria that were then expanded over the years. Youngkin has reverted to the previous system, in which each case is personally considered by the governor.
He’s been sued over this policy, and advocates point out that the original language of the state constitution, which Youngkin said he’s bound to follow, was inserted in 1902 as part of a constitutional convention assembled for the explicit purpose of minimizing the number of Black people on the voting rolls.
At that 1902 convention, Sen. Carter Glass said that the package of voting rules, including felon disenfranchisement, would “not necessarily deprive a single white man of the ballot, but will inevitably cut from the existing electorate four-fifths of the negro voters. That was the purpose of this Convention; that will be the achievement.”
The lawsuit against Youngkin, filed last month, said that Virginia ranks fifth in the nation for citizens disenfranchised for felony convictions, with more than 312,000, The Associated Press reports.
The suit adds that Black Virginians make up less than 20 percent of the commonwealth’s voting-age population but nearly half of those disenfranchised due to felony convictions.
In a letter to Barnette obtained by Northern Virginia Magazine, Secretary of the Commonwealth Kay C. James said, “Governor Youngkin and I both guarantee that [race, religion and ethnicity] play absolutely no role in the process or the serious decisions that we make on behalf of returning citizens.”
James said in the letter that the Virginia Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that governors do not have the authority to issue blanket restorations of voting rights. (Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe appears to have gotten around this restriction by using an autopen; it’s not known what method former Gov. Ralph Northam used.)
The secretary also said in the letter that Youngkin has said, “He will be less likely to quickly restore the voting rights of anyone who used a firearm in the commission of a crime, and that, generally speaking, but not always, he will work to restore the voting rights of those who committed nonviolent crimes.”
She added that all applications received before April 30 have been acted on.
At the news conference, Barnette acknowledged Youngkin has the sole power, but should respond to “critical need of the people in the community.”
Ryan Snow, a lawyer with the Voting Rights Project of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said Youngkin “can’t hide behind the constitution.”
“The previous three governors have found a way to do this in a way that’s fair and equitable and consistent with the constitution,” Snow said. “So it’s simply not the case that he’s required to do this process. He chose to do this process.”
Snow said in an interview later Tuesday that the NAACP had asked Youngkin’s administration for information on the criteria used to make decisions on rights restoral, but that what the group received wasn’t illuminating.
What the NAACP did find, Snow says, was communications between the governor’s office and various state agencies, but what information was being sought was redacted.
Snow adds that while the pace of restorations has slowed considerably, there have still been enough that it’s clear the governor isn’t poring over each application personally.
“So it’s simply not the case that there’s no criteria, there’s no standard,” Snow says. “… They’ve essentially chosen not to disclose that criteria.”
Featured image courtesy Facebook/NAACP Virginia State Conference
For more stories like this, subscribe to Northern Virginia Magazine’s News newsletter.