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Fact Sheet: Voter Suppression Comes to Virginia

Like Republicans across the country, Governor Youngkin has moved to suppress voting in Virginia. One of his particular targets has been former felons. The administration has shrouded its actions in secrecy, so their full extent is unknown.

It’s estimated that 6% of the voting-age population in Virginia is prohibited from voting because of a felony record. Some states, particularly in the South, traditionally limited the ability of ex-felons to vote even after they had completed their sentence, but in recent years the trend has been to readmit these people to the voting rolls. A 2018 study found that over 60% of adults favor the restoration of voting rights to former felons who have completed their sentences.

Virginia is one of only three states that still automatically disfranchises people convicted of a felony, but it also empowers the governor to restore those rights once the subjects have been released from prison. Democratic Governor Northam, who served immediately before Youngkin, regularized and streamlined the restoration process. Under his administration, any former felon who petitioned to vote after completing his or her sentence automatically qualified for restoration of rights.

Governor Youngkin initially continued that policy. Sometime after May 2022, however, acting in secret, he ended the automatic award of eligibility and began to consider each case individually. The administration did not disclose that it had changed rights restoration until confronted with a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Virginia NAACP. The NAACP and the ACLU, among others, are now pursuing litigation about the Youngkin administration’s policy.

The administration has not publicly revealed what standards it now applies when deciding whose rights to restore. When it denies a petition, it does not state a reason but simply invites applicants to reapply in a year. The Virginia NAACP has asserted that the information the administration seeks from petitioners is “likely to include voting history.” Nor has the administration stated why it made the change to state policy. It may be relevant that in one study, ex-felons were more likely to be Democrats or Independents than Republicans, although Republican ex-felons were more likely than others to vote.

The administration has also been secretive about over 1,000 petitions for voting rights restoration that it currently considersincomplete.” The administration has not informed those petitioners what is missing from their petitions. Robert Barnette, President of the Virginia NAACP, says that this issue disproportionately affects voters of color and “cannot be allowed to continue.”

An additional problem is a software error installed by the administration that has improperly purged from the voting rolls some ex-felons who served their time, then petitioned for and were granted the restoration of their rights. According to the administration, the software program misread reports of parole violations as a commission of additional felonies that deprived subjects of their rights a second time. The program then improperly purged those alleged parole violators from the rolls. In an official report released this September, the administration said it removed 17,368 voters from the rolls in this process.

The administration did not reveal that any removals were improper until late September 2023, when reporting by a public radio station confirmed the existence of a disfranchised Arlington voter. As recently as October 2023, the administration admitted only to improper removal of fewer than 300 voters. Then, a week before the Nov. 7 election, the administration suddenly admitted that the Department of Elections had improperly purged over ten times as many voters -- almost 3,400 eligible, registered voters. The administration claimed that all but about 100 of the voters were re-added to the rolls before Election Day.

The entire episode is shrouded in secrecy. The gap between the administration’s initial disclosure and its most recent admission and the large number of voters purged by the flawed software supports skepticism of the administration’s story. Both of Virginia’s senators and its six Democratic Congressional Representatives have called for an investigation by the Department of Justice.

Voting rights are at the heart of our democracy. The Youngkin administration’s reprehensible efforts to restrict those rights should be fully exposed and stopped.

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