Virginia NAACP sues Youngkin for records behind the denials of felons’ voting rights

(AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko) (Eugene Hoshiko, Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

RICHMOND, Va. – The Virginia NAACP filed a lawsuit Friday alleging Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration failed to turn over public records to explain how it decides whether to restore the voting rights of convicted felons who have completed their sentences.

Youngkin has come under scrutiny since his administration confirmed earlier this year that it has shifted away from a restoration of rights system used by three of his predecessors that was partly automatic.

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In July, the NAACP called on the administration to establish clear and publicly available criteria, saying the current system is secretive and could discriminate against people of color.

“This governor has chosen to take Virginia back over 100 years ago to a racist history where felony disenfranchisement was used explicitly to disenfranchise Black Virginians,” said Ryan Snow, an attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which is representing the NAACP in this case.

“We know that felony disenfranchisement is a severely racially discriminatory policy, just on its face,” Snow said.

In the lawsuit filed in Richmond Circuit Court, the NAACP said the Youngkin administration turned over about 600 documents. But the lawsuit identified additional documents it believes are not exempt from the Virginia Freedom of Information Act and should be made public.

They include an administration transition document that has information about the restoration of the rights process, documents containing information about applicants whose restoration of rights applications were denied, and records showing the numbers of applicants and denials.

“Virginians of all stripes deserve to know as much as possible about the rights restoration process, including who is in the room, what information is considered, and the criteria used to make decisions, " NAACP Virginia State Conference President Robert N. Barnette, Jr. said in a news release.

Two federal lawsuits have been filed over Youngkin’s process, which critics have said is confusing and does not have clear standards on when an application should be granted or denied.

The Washington-based Fair Elections Center alleges in its lawsuit that the process being used by Youngkin is unconstitutional and could lead to decisions based on an applicant’s political affiliations or views. A second lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia alleges the state is violating a Reconstruction-era federal law.

A felony conviction in Virginia automatically results in the loss of certain civil rights such as voting, running for office, serving on a jury or carrying a firearm. The governor has the sole discretion to restore those rights — with the exception of firearms rights, which only a court can do.

In July, the NAACP said documents it had obtained through public records requests “reveal a lack of clear standards and timelines” that creates a confusing system “rife with opportunity for discriminatory impact on Black Virginians and other Virginians of color.”

Former Secretary of the Commonwealth Kay Coles James, whose office oversees restorations, strongly denied those allegations in a letter she sent to the NAACP in July. James wrote that there is no reference in the application process to “race, religion, or ethnicity.”

“Governor Youngkin and I both guarantee that these factors play absolutely no role in the process or the serious decisions that we make on behalf of returning citizens,” James wrote.

James said Youngkin is “less likely to quickly restore the voting rights of anyone who used a firearm in the commission of a crime.” She also wrote that Youngkin will also “generally speaking, but not always” work to restore the voting rights of those who committed nonviolent crimes.

The lawsuit names Youngkin and Kelly Gee, the current secretary of the Commonwealth, as defendants. Macaulay Porter, Youngkin's spokeswoman, said Friday that the governor's office underwent an extensive process in good faith to fulfill the NAACP's requests.

“As the lawsuit admits, we engaged in a multi-month process with the NAACP with multiple meetings and discussions that culminated in the production of nearly 600 pages of records, some of which the governor was not required to produce under FOIA laws," Porter said

She added that Youngkin "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.”

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Finley reported from Norfolk, Virginia.