On March 16, 2021, Governor Ralph Northam took executive action to restore the right to vote to all Virginians who are not currently incarcerated, and he has stated his intention of continuing this practice going forward for all Virginians upon their release from prison. This executive action builds on past efforts from prior gubernatorial administrations to restore voting rights for Virginians after they had completed probation or parole. Virginia is one of three states whose constitution otherwise permanently disenfranchises all citizens with past felony convictions, but grants the state’s governor the authority to restore voting rights. Northam’s action follows the General Assembly’s passage of a constitutional amendment that would cement the automatic restoration of voting rights upon release from prison. In order to take effect, that amendment must be passed again after a new legislature is seated following the 2021 elections, and then approved by a majority of Virginia voters.
Virginia’s disenfranchisement provision dates to the nineteenth century, and advocates have worked for years, urging Virginia governors to exercise their executive authority to restore voting rights. The Brennan Center was among those who urged Governors Mark Warner (2005), Tim Kaine (2009), and Robert McDonnell (2010) to do so. In 2021, after years of progress through executive action, the legislature finally began the process of amending Virginia’s constitution to eliminate permanent disenfranchisement.
In May 2013, rights restoration gained momentum when then-Gov. McDonnell ended Virginia’s policy of permanently disenfranchising all citizens with felony convictions. His action automated rights restoration for people completing sentences (including payment of any fines, fees, and restitution) for convictions classified as non-violent and eliminated their two-year waiting period, though it required that each person receive an individualized rights restoration certificate before registering to vote.
In April 2014, Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced that he would further streamline the restoration process. The policy change broadened the category of people who automatically received their right to vote upon the completion of their sentence, and shortened the rights restoration waiting period for rehabilitated violent offenders to apply from five years to three.
In June 2015, Gov. McAuliffe removed the requirement that citizens fully pay court costs and fees to have their voting rights restored.
In April 2016, Gov. McAuliffe issued an executive order restoring voting rights to Virginians with felony convictions who, as of that date, had completed the terms of their incarceration and any period of supervised release (probation or parole). He issued similar orders in May and June. These orders were challenged in court, and in July 2016, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled in Howell v. McAuliffe that they violated the state constitution, which required the governor to make clemency determinations on a case-by-case basis.
In August 2016, Gov. McAuliffe announced that his office would issue restoration orders on an individual basis to Virginians with completed sentences, starting with the approximately 13,000 citizens who had their voter registrations cancelled in the wake of the Howell decision. The governor also announced that, going forward, the Secretary of the Commonwealth would identify individuals with completed sentences, starting with individuals who have been released from supervision the longest. The Secretary would then recommend individuals for rights restoration on a rolling basis to the Governor for his final approval. Individuals may also receive an expedited restoration order by applying directly to the Secretary’s Office online or by mail. According to the announcement, the Secretary will announce citizens that received an individualized restoration order on a monthly basis.
In March 2021, the General Assembly approved a constitutional amendment to provide for the automatic restoration of voting rights upon release from prison. The General Assembly must re-approve this constitutional amendment in the next legislative session before it can be sent to the voters for ratification. Subsequently, Gov. Northam took executive action to restore the right to vote to all Virginians on probation or parole, mirroring the constitutional amendment, and he has stated his intention of continuing this practice going forward for all Virginians upon their release from prison.
Materials on 2016 Executive Orders and Howell v. McAuliffe Case
- Court Order (Denial of Contempt Motion) (Sept. 15, 2016)
- Response to Petitioners’ Motion for an Order to Show Cause, McAuliffe et al., (Sept. 12, 2016)
- Motion for an Order Requiring Respondents to Show Cause Why They Should Not Be Held in Contempt, Howell et al., (Aug. 31, 2016)
- Governor McAuliffe’s Restoration of Rights Policy (Aug. 22, 2016)
- Press Release: Governor McAuliffe Statement on the Virginia Supreme Court Decision on the Restoration of Civil Rights (July 22, 2016)
- Court Opinion (July 22, 2016)
- Oral Arguments [audio] (July 19, 2016)
- Response to Verified Petition for Writs of Mandamus and Prohibition, McAuliffe et al., (June 27, 2016)
- Oral Argument Order (June 1, 2016)
- Response to Petitioner’s Motion for a Special Session and Expedited Consideration, McAuliffe et al., (May 27, 2016)
- Verified Petition for Writs of Mandamus and Prohibition, Howell et al., (May 23, 2016)
- Order for the Restoration of Rights (May 31, 2016)
- Restoration of Rights Data (May 5, 2016)
- Order for the Restoration of Rights (Apr. 22, 2016)
- Press Release: Governor McAuliffe Restores Voting and Civil Rights to Over 200,000 Virginians (Apr. 22, 2016)
- Summary of the Governor’s Restoration of Rights Order (Apr. 22, 2016)
- Amicus Briefs:
- Brief of Fair Elections Legal Network as Amicus Curaie in Support of Respondents (June 27, 2016)
- Brief of Amici Curiae David Green and Bridging the Gap in Virginia, Inc in Support of Respondents (June 27, 2016)
- Brief of Amicus Curiae Commonwealth’s Attorneys in Support of Petitioners (June 17, 2016)
Brennan Center Coverage
- The Vote in Virginia, Andrew Cohen (Apr. 25, 2016)
- Keep Politics Out of Virginia Voting Rights Restoration, Tomas Lopez & Kwame Akosah (July 19, 2016)
- Virginia Governor Restores Voting Rights to 200,000 Citizens (Apr. 22, 2016)
- How Much of a Difference Did New Voting Restrictions Make in Yesterday’s Close Races?, Wendy Weiser, Crossposted at Bill Moyers & Company (Nov. 5, 2014)
- The Democracy Restoration Act: Securing Voting Rights for All, Nicole Austin-Hillery, Crossposted at American Constitution Society (April 15, 2014)
- States of Dysfunction: Voting Issues from Election Day 2013, Victoria Bassetti (Nov. 6, 2013)
- Virginia’s Step Forward On Voting Rights, Carson Whitelemons (June 11, 2013)
- A Step Forward in Virginia on Restoring Voting Rights, Vishal Agraharkar, Crossposted at The Huffington Post (Jan. 11, 2013)
- Jim Crow makes a comeback in Virginia, Erika Wood, Originally published at The Grio (Apr. 15, 2010)
- WOOD: Restore the Vote to These Virginians, Erika Wood, Richmond Times-Dispatch (Jan. 13, 2010)
- It Isn’t Complicated: Restore the Vote to 300,000 Americans, Erika Wood, Originally published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch (Jan. 13, 2010)
Virginia Gov. Northam restores voting rights to 69,000 former felons with new policy, Fredreka Schouten, CNN (Mar. 16, 2021)
Virginia’s Breakthrough on Rectifying an Enormous Injustice, The Editorial Board, Washington Post (June 11, 2017)
- Governor McAuliffe Provides Update on Restoration of Rights Numbers, NBC 29 (Jan. 6, 2017)
- Virginia Makes Progress in Push to Restore Voting Rights for Ex-Convicts, Dan Roberts, The Guardian (Oct. 14, 2016)
- Virginia’s McAuliffe to Announce Restoration of Voting Rights to 13,000 Felons, Laura Vozzella, The Washington Post (Aug. 21, 2016)
- Richard Cizik: Virginia Should Change Course On Rights Restoration, Richard Cizik, The Virginia-Pilot (July 31, 2016)
- Virginia Governor Says Fight for Felons’ Voting Rights Is Not Over, Michael Wines, New York Times (July 25, 2016)
- Virginia Needs to Fix Its Racist Voting Law, Dale E. Ho, New York Times (July 19, 2016)
- Why the Virginia GOP Can’t Thwart McAuliffe on Voting Rights, Andrew Cohen, The Marshall Project (May 24, 2016)
- GOP Sues to Block McAuliffe Order to Let 200,000 Virginia Felons Vote, Laura Vozzella, Washington Post (May 23, 2016)
- Virginia Republicans Weigh Court Challenge to Voting Rights for Felons, Jess Bidgood, New York Times (May 2, 2016)
- Virginia Governor Restoring Voting Rights to Felons, Sheryl Gay Stolberg & Erik Eckholm, New York Times (Apr. 22, 2016)
- About 200,000 Convicted Felons in Virginia Will Now Have the Right to Vote in November, Sari Horwitz & Jenna Portnoy, Washington Post (Apr. 22, 2016)
- In Virginia, A Battle to Give Former Felons the Right to Vote, Pam Fessler, NPR (July 6, 2016)
- Gov. Terry McAuliffe is Restoring Hope to More Virginians, Levar Stoney, Richmond Times-Dispatch (Dec. 27, 2014)
- McAuliffe Says Rights Restored for 5,100 Ex-Offenders, Jim Nolan, Richmond Times-Dispatch (Dec. 18, 2014)
- Gov. McAuliffe Expands Voting Rights for Ex-Convicts, The Editorial Board, Washington Post (April 19, 2014)
- From Felon to Voter in Virginia, The Editorial Board, Washington Post (Jan. 22, 2014)
- McDonnell to Speed Rights Process for Nonviolent Felons, Olympia Meola, Richmond-Times Dispatch (May 29, 2013)
Brennan Center Publications
- Restoring the Right to Vote, Erika Wood (2009)
- The Brennan Center’s policy proposal for restoring voting rights for citizens with past criminal convictions.
- My First Vote (2009)
- Testimonials of individuals who regained their voting rights after being disenfranchised because of past criminal convictions.
- De Facto Disenfranchisement, Erika Wood & Rachel Bloom (2008)
- A report on how complex laws, poorly informed officials, and misinformation lead to the de facto disenfranchisement of citizens with past criminal convictions who are eligible to vote.
- Racism & Felony Disenfranchisement: An Intertwined History, Erin Kelley (2017)
- A piece examining the historical roots of criminal disenfranchisement laws that today strip voting rights from millions of U.S. citizens.
For more information about the Brennan Center’s work on Restoring Voting Rights in Virginia, please contact Derek Paulhus, at email@example.com.