Today, the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP (Virginia NAACP) responded to a letter from Secretary of the Commonwealth Kay Coles James, sent on July 17, 2023, at the direction of Governor Youngkin. Secretary James’ letter addressed information revealed by the Virginia NAACP concerning the governor’s new restoration of rights process based on documents received through public records requests it submitted on May 9, 2023, represented by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Office of the General Counsel of the NAACP, and the law firm Hogan Lovells US LLP.
In her letter, Secretary James attempted to sidestep simple questions about the restoration of rights process, and failed to address the Virginia NAACP’s demand that the governor: 1) establish a clear and publicly available set of criteria that govern his decision whether to restore an individual’s rights; 2) communicate directly with applicants about all aspects of the process, including the reasons for his decision; and 3) establish and adhere to a clear timeline that will ensure for fair and prompt processing of all applications. The Virginia NAACP renews its demand for these and other changes as the November 2023 general election approaches.
Despite the governor’s office earlier claiming that there are no set criteria being used to determine whether an individual will have their rights restored, Secretary James’ letter referred to two such criteria—whether the disqualifying offense was violent or nonviolent and whether it involved a firearm—without explaining how these criteria are being used or revealing any others that are used. The Youngkin administration has thus far likewise refused to state what it is doing to ensure that protected classes such as race, religion, and gender, as well as other important characteristics such as voting history and geographic location, do not affect the decision-making process. Also concerning is that the pace of voting rights restorations under the new process has slowed to a crawl relative to previous administrations, and neither the secretary nor the governor has explained what is driving the slowdown. While the secretary claimed that the pace has increased and that all applications submitted by April 30 had been processed—already an unacceptable two and a half month delay—the governor has withheld all records showing the numbers of applications submitted and denied under his administration, keeping Virginians in the dark about what is actually going on behind closed doors.
“After reviewing the secretary’s letter, our main question remains unanswered—why are some returning citizens having their rights restored while others are denied,” said Virginia NAACP President Robert N. Barnette, Jr. “Without clear public statements and document disclosures from the administration, we have no choice but to conclude that this process is being administered in a way that exacerbates the already racially discriminatory effect of felony disenfranchisement in Virginia. Given Virginia’s ugly history with voter suppression, including literacy tests and poll taxes, it is deeply troublesome that this administration has chosen to shroud this process in secrecy and leave returning citizens completely in the dark.”
“Governor Youngkin is attempting to run out the clock on Virginia’s returning citizens, threatening to disenfranchise thousands of predominantly Black and Brown Virginians in the 2023 general election,” said Ryan Snow, counsel with the Voting Rights Project of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “The governor says he is not using any set criteria in determining whether to restore a returning citizen’s rights, and then Secretary James says he is using at least two—it is time for the governor to come clean and state clearly how and why he is making these decisions.”
A copy of the Virginia NAACP’s letter responding to Secretary James can be found here.
To access the documents from the FOIA on Restoration of Rights: naacpva.us/FOIA-RestorationOfRights
To access the Proposed Platform for Gubernatorial Restoration Rights Process: naacpva.us/ProposedPlatformForRestorationOfRights