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Voting Rights Restoration Efforts in Virginia

A summary of current felony disenfranchisement policies and legislative advocacy in Virginia.

Last Updated: April 3, 2023
Published: April 20, 2018

On March 16, 2021, former Gov. Ralph Northam took exec­ut­ive action to automatically restore the right to vote to all Virgini­ans who are not currently incar­cer­ated. Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who took office on January 15, 2022, quietly terminated that practice some time after he automatically restored voting rights to 3,496 Virginians on probation or parole on May 20, 2022. Individuals convicted of a felony who did not have their rights restored under the previous practice must now apply to the governor to have their rights restored on an individual basis. This change in policy makes Virginia the only state in the nation that permanently disenfranchises all people with felony convictions, unless the government approves individual rights restoration.

Disenfranchisement in Virginia

Except for those whose voting rights were automatically restored on or before May 20, 2022, individuals convicted of a felony in Virginia are permanently barred from voting unless they apply to the governor to have their rights restored. A state-maintained website with information regarding Virginia’s rights restoration process can be accessed here.

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. 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.

Legislative Efforts and Executive Actions

  • Although he initially continued former Gov. Northam’s practice of automatically restoring the right to vote to all Virginians who are not currently incarcerated, Gov. Glenn Youngkin quietly ended that practice some time after May 2022. Moving forward, individuals convicted of a felony must apply to the governor to have their rights restored on an individual basis.
  • In February 2022, a proposed constitutional amendment that would have provided for the automatic restoration of voting rights upon release from prison died in a subcommittee of the House Privileges and Elections Committee. The amendment, which passed the General Assembly in March 2021, had to be passed by the General Assembly again in 2022 in order to go before voters for approval.
  • In March 2021, then-Gov. Northam took exec­ut­ive action to automatically restore the right to vote to all Virgini­ans on proba­tion or parole, mirror­ing the proposed consti­tu­tional amend­ment.
  • In August 2016, Gov. McAul­iffe announced that his office would issue individual restor­a­tion orders on a rolling basis to Virgini­ans with completed sentences.  
  • 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 June 2015, Gov. McAul­iffe removed the require­ment that citizens fully pay court costs and fees to have their voting rights restored.
  • 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 May 2013, rights restor­a­tion gained momentum when then-Gov. Bob 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.

Mater­i­als on 2016 Exec­ut­ive Orders and Howell v. McAul­iffe Case 

 Bren­nan Center Cover­age


 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 Connie Wu at