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Voting rights are at risk in the 2023 Virginia legislative elections

Virginia Republicans have pushed to make it harder to vote and to keep former felons from regaining their rights.

By Josh Israel - April 19, 2023
A voter arrives to cast their ballot in the midterm elections on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022, at Southside Elementary School in Huntington, W.Va.
A voter arrives to cast their ballot in the midterm elections on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022, at Southside Elementary School in Huntington, W.Va. (Allison Bailey/NurPhoto via AP)

In 2018, an analysis of how easy it was for Americans to vote in elections published in Election Law Journal ranked Virginia 49th out of 50 states, ahead of only Mississippi.

After Democrats took full control of the commonwealth’s government in 2020, they enacted reforms that raised its rank to 12th. But with Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin and his GOP allies in the Legislature eager to revive voter suppression laws and to halt efforts to restore voting rights to people convicted of felonies who have completed their sentences, this year’s elections will determine the future of voting rights in Virginia.

Virginia is one of five states that elects its state legislators in odd-numbered years; voters in the state will choose all 100 members of its House of Delegates and all 40 members of its Senate in November.

Shawn Weneta, a policy and advocacy strategist for the ACLU of Virginia, said Virginia made huge strides during the two years Democrats held the governorship and majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly.

“With a lot of the reforms that were put into place in 2020-2021, Virginia went from back of the pack, one of the worst in the country, to being in the top 15, if not the top 10, in accessibility to the ballot” he said. “It’s monumental generational progress.”

Over those two years, Virginia enacted more than a dozen voting rights laws:

It also significantly increased the number of valid forms of voter identification to include utility bills, bank statements, paychecks, government documents, out-of-state student ID cards, and signed affidavits.

After Youngkin won the election in 2021 and Republicans gained a 52-48 majority in the House of Delegates, GOP lawmakers began trying to undo that progress.

In 2023, the GOP House majority passed bills that would have reinstated a strict photo ID law, prohibited ballot drop boxes, reduced early voting, ended same-day registration, canceled the annual vote-by-mail option, and increased purges of voter rolls. The Democratic-led Senate killed each bill, blocking them from reaching Youngkin’s desk.

Should Republicans keep control of the House and gain a majority in the Senate, Weneta predicts, a flurry of similar bills will become law: “Republicans introduced those bills the last two years, knowing that they still had to go through the Senate, through the Dem-controlled Privileges and Elections Committee that’s chaired by Sen. [Lionell] Spruill, who championed a lot of these measures, and knowing that they were going to die when they put them through anyway. And it’s really become a political football.”

Weneta noted that the election could determine whether many who have been convicted of felonies will continue to be denied the right to vote under a Jim Crow-era state constitutional provision, observing, “More than half of the disenfranchised people in Virginia right now are still Black and brown, even though they only make up less than 20% of the population.”

The provision reads, “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”; it was one of many adopted in 1902 explicitly to prevent Black Virginian men from voting.

The past three Virginia governors, from both parties, have worked to streamline the process and automatically approve the restoration of rights as those convicted of felonies complete their sentences.

But Youngkin ended that practice, grinding the process to a near halt. Weneta thinks he did so at the behest of Republicans in the Legislature:

He restored about 4,000 people in May of last year. And then, all of a sudden, he stopped. And the reason that he stopped was because there were Republicans in the General Assembly that didn’t like that he had continued the previous administration policy. So they went to him and said, Gov. Youngkin, you need to slow this down. You’re restoring people with violent crimes, you’re restoring people that are still under supervision, and we don’t like it. So the Youngkin administration stopped and the rest of the year, they only restored about 800 people, even though about 15,000 people had been released from prison that year. And then we pretty much knew that, because people were applying to have their rights restored, but their petitions stayed in a pending status, which they still are. He wasn’t denying anybody restoration, but he wasn’t granting anybody.

Voting rights advocates have pushed for a repeal of the requirement entirely, but the process to amend the Virginia Constitution is complex. A majority of members of both legislative chambers must approve the change two legislative sessions in a row, with an election in between, and then a majority of voters must approve it in the next statewide election.

In 2021, the Democratic-led House and Senate took the first step toward approving a constitutional amendment to make the rights restoration process automatic. A year later, the Democratic majority in the Senate approved it for a second time with a handful of Republican votes, but House Republicans killed it in a committee.

Liam Watson, press secretary for the Democratic Party of Virginia, told the American Independent Foundation if voters elect Democratic majorities in the House and Senate this November, the Legislature will restart that process and let the voters decide.

“Sen. [Mamie] Locke has pledged to reintroduce a constitutional amendment that she had already put forward, that Republicans killed, that would make this process automatic and take this power from the hands of the governor, so that were we to get a cynical, unempathetic leader like Glenn Youngkin in office, former felons’ rights wouldn’t be in jeopardy,” Watson said.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.

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