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Voting Rights Restoration Efforts in Virginia

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

Last Updated: March 16, 2021
Published: April 20, 2018

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.

Recent Developments

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 2020, 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

Brennan Center Coverage

Press

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 Stuart Baum, at stuart.baum@nyu.edu.