Shaban Athuman/VPM News
RICHMOND, Va. — Unlike most people in Virginia seeking to have their voting rights restored, Blair Dacey was able to tell her story directly to Gov. Glenn Youngkin.
When she was 17, she’d come to a friend’s defense in a fight with the friend’s husband. Dacey said she kicked the husband in the head, and he later died from brain injuries. It was an accident, she said, but a jury convicted her of second-degree murder.
She was pardoned in the final days of former Gov. Ralph Northam’s term, and went on to work for a state senator — which is how she met Youngkin, at an event.
Dacey said Youngkin held her arm and hand as she talked, and seemed sympathetic. But two months after petitioning his administration to have her voting rights restored, Dacey hasn’t heard back. The delay is not unusual; recent governors from both parties approved requests in batches. But they also spelled out clearly who was eligible.
Under Youngkin, “it’s really just a mystery to me right now about what I should even expect,” said Dacey, who also acknowledges she’s lucky — most people caught in limbo aren’t white women who’ve met the governor.
A federal lawsuit targets Youngkin
John C. Clark/AP
Youngkin has slowed rights restorations while failing to specify what criteria he’s using, sparking a new federal lawsuit accusing him of violating the U.S. Constitution.
The moves by the governor — who’s seen as a possible presidential contender in 2024 — put him at odds with states like Minnesota and New Mexico that in recent months have expanded ballot access for the formerly incarcerated. Backers of increasing access point to studies showing people who participate in civic life are less likely to reoffend.
Virginia is one of a small number of states where it’s up to the governor to decide whether people who’ve convicted felony offenses regain their right to vote, serve on a jury or serve as a notary public. The setup dates back to Virginia’s 1902 Constitution, where white politicians like Carter Glass set out with the explicit goal of disenfranchising Black voters.
Some, like Don Scott, the top Democrat in Virginia’s House of Delegates, accuse Youngkin of following that legacy.
“The progeny of Carter Glass sits up at the governor’s mansion,” Scott said at a press conference Tuesday. “And now he has decided on his own that he is judge and jury when it comes to the restoration of rights.”
The last three governors — first Republican Bob McDonnell, followed by Democrats Terry McAuliffe and Northam — had streamlined the process. Scott, who served time on federal drug charges in the 1990s, had his rights restored by McDonnell.
From seeking “efficiencies” to instituting a bigger change
People who met certain criteria, which gradually broadened under the two Democratic governors, had their rights restored automatically. Under Northam, the process grew to include anyone who’d completed their prison sentence, even if they hadn’t finished probation or parole.
Collectively, the three governors restored rights to more than 300,000 people, most of them under the two Democrats.
When Youngkin took office on Jan. 15, 2022, it initially seemed as if he would continue the trend. Secretary of the Commonwealth Kay Coles James announced the first tranche of nearly 3,500 restorations in May 2022. At the time, the former president of the conservative Heritage Foundation said she had no plans to change the process.
“The only thing we’re looking for are efficiencies — ways to do it faster, quicker,” James told member station VPM.
But the pace appeared to slow by October, when the administration announced another 800 restorations. Youngkin’s office did not respond to questions about how many people have had their rights restored this year and James declined an interview.
The current application includes new fields asking whether people committed a violent offense; whether they’ve paid court fines, fees and restitution; and whether they’re currently on probation or other state supervision. James and Youngkin have so far refused to say how those criteria factor in their final decision.
In a letter to a Democratic state senator, James said her office is evaluating each case individually, “practicing grace for those who need it and ensuring public safety for our communities and families.”
In a statement sent after this story was published, James made a similar point specifically about Blair Dacey’s application: “This case is a great example of why we are being diligent to research every application in coordination with state agencies to ensure we have full knowledge of applicants and can make informed decisions in the best interests of Virginians.”
Youngkin has repeatedly reiterated that he believes the Virginia Constitution requires reviewing each case individually.
A lawsuit filed by the Fair Elections Center on behalf of Gregory Williams, who is awaiting word back from the governor on rights restoration, and Nolef Turns, a Richmond-based nonprofit, argues those standards violate the U.S. Constitution. The center’s litigation director, Jon Sherman, said “practicing grace” violated a 1969 U.S. Supreme Court precedent, related to a local ban of a civil rights march, that Sherman argued bans officials from acting with “uncontrolled discretion.”
“Gov. Younkin has replaced what was a non-arbitrary system with objective rules with a purely discretionary, purely arbitrary system, where there are no rules, there are no criteria,” Sherman said.
The center is involved in a similar lawsuit with Kentucky, which bestows similar powers on the governor.
Sheba Williams, executive director of Nolef Turns, said the problem in Virginia goes beyond Youngkin.
“We have been fighting to make this process be removed from the hands of a person and their emotion and how they feel in the moment and make it an actual process that can’t be denied,” she said in an interview.
Some lawmakers from both parties have advocated changing the state constitution so that rights are restored automatically. Top Republicans in Virginia’s General Assembly have so far blocked any changes.
But with all 140 seats up for grabs this November, the fight will likely spill onto the campaign trail.