Advocates question Governor’s change to voting rights policy

They said it will leave many people who were in prison in limbo, not knowing if they have the right to vote.
It’s a topic that’s been talked about for years. The process to improve the restoration of voting rights.
Published: Mar. 23, 2023 at 6:28 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) -It’s a topic that’s been talked about for years—the process to improve the restoration of voting rights.

Governor Glenn Youngkin recently changed the state policy, now requiring formerly incarcerated people to apply for their voting rights. In recent years, the restoration was automatic.

Civil rights advocates and some lawmakers believe there is a lack of transparency within the Youngkin administration regarding this policy. They said they are worried this will keep many former inmates from voting without clear guidelines on how it will work.

“There’s no clarity. There’s no transparency in this,” ACLU-VA Policy and Advocacy Strategist Shawn Weneta said. “This administration ran on clarity and transparency.”

Weneta knows firsthand the importance of getting the opportunity to vote after being released from jail. He had his rights restored in 2021 after serving 16 years in prison.

“It certainly puts a lot of people in limbo. There is no criteria set out,” Weneta said. “If they said, ‘these are the people that would qualify, and if you have either maybe not completed your probation or perhaps you were convicted of this certain type of crime, ’ none of that is laid out in the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s memo.”

Democrat Senator and Privileges & Elections Chair Lionell Spruill demands answers from Governor Youngkin on how the application process will work.

He released this statement to NBC12 on Thursday:

“It deeply concerns me when the core rights I have been fighting for all my life are being rolled back. Once you have served your time, your rights should be restored for non-violent felons. Period. As Chairman of the Privileges and Elections Committee, I will fight against this secret process and secret set of rules that the Governor is using to decide who can be denied the right to vote. Elections have consequences, and I will continue to fight back against the rollback of these rights.”

In a letter to Spruill, Secretary of the Commonwealth Kay Cole James explains that every discharged inmate will be given a paper application for restoration that will be considered individually. They can check their status online.

The restoration process began under Governor McDonnell, resulting in thousands winning their rights. Then in 2014, Governor McAuliffe and then Secretary Levar Stoney worked to improve processes, streamlining the application process, which was then continued by Governor Northam, who restored rights for over 126,000 people before he left office.

Governor Youngkin’s spokeswoman Macaulay Porter released a statement regarding this change in restoring voting rights:

“The Governor firmly believes in the importance of second chances for Virginians who have made mistakes but are working to move forward as active members of our citizenry. The Constitution places the responsibility to consider Virginians for restoration in the hands of the Governor alone, and he does not take this lightly. Restoration of rights are assessed on an individual basis according to the law and take into consideration the unique elements of each situation, practicing grace for those who need it and ensuring public safety for our community and families. The Department of Corrections and the Secretary of the Commonwealth work with the appropriate agencies to restore an individual’s rights.”

In a statement from Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said the following:

“Removing the automatic restoration of rights is a major step backwards for the Commonwealth of Virginia. By doing so, Governor Youngkin is intentionally adding red tape to further disenfranchise returning citizens. As elected officials, we should always strive to find better ways to serve ALL Virginians, which is what the prior three administrations did. The lack of compassion and transparency out of the Youngkin Administration is regression at its finest – I expected more from the highest elected seat in the Commonwealth.”

“We know over 10% of African Americans over the age of 18 are presently disenfranchised due to felony convictions,” NAACP VA President Robert Barnette said.

Barnette echoed that the criteria be explained so people of color can have the necessary information.

“Having been disenfranchised and having my rights restored, having not be able to vote, now being able to go to the ballot box and have my voice heard, because of this policy change, there are 1000 people being released every month from incarceration in Virginia that are in the dark as to whether they are eligible to apply, much less to actually go to the ballot box and make their voices heard,” Weneta said.

Weneta said they will continue their fight for a constitutional amendment that would put the power into the hands of voters.