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Virginia governor's process of restoring voting rights for felons is under fire

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

When people are convicted of felonies, each state has its own rules on whether and when they can regain the right to vote. Some states, like Minnesota and New Mexico, have expanded access in recent months. But Virginia's Republican governor, Glenn Youngkin, has gone in the other direction, undoing automatic rights restoration in his state. And he is now facing a federal lawsuit. Ben Paviour from member station VPM has more.

BEN PAVIOUR, BYLINE: Blair Dacey will never forget the moment she found out she'd been pardoned. She was outside and heard shouts from other inmates.

BLAIR DACEY: I get inside and they're like, you're going home. You're going home. And I was like - I didn't understand what they were saying.

PAVIOUR: Dacey never expected to be out so soon. When she was 17, she says she came to her friend's defense in a fight. Dacey ended up kicking the friend's husband in the head. He later died, and she was convicted of second-degree murder.

DACEY: I wasn't expecting it at all. I mean, it was an accident. I was 17, and I never meant to hurt that guy.

PAVIOUR: Former Governor Ralph Northam pardoned Dacey in his final days in office. When she got out of prison, Dacey got a job as a legislative aide but still can't vote. Now she's not sure where her 2-month-old application for rights restoration stands, even after sharing her story with the current governor, Glenn Youngkin, at an event.

DACEY: It's really just a mystery to me right now about what I should even expect.

PAVIOUR: Dacey is the first to acknowledge she's lucky. Most people caught in limbo aren't white women who've met the governor. But Sheba Williams with Nolef Turns, a Richmond-based criminal justice group, says the rights restoration process affects everyone. She points to data showing it reduces recidivism.

SHEBA WILLIAMS: I think a lot of people have the misconception that this impacts only Black people, only poor people. This impacts all of us.

PAVIOUR: Williams' nonprofit is part of a new federal lawsuit against the Youngkin administration. It alleges the lack of transparency in their process violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Williams says it's also an issue of basic fairness.

WILLIAMS: Because at the end of the day, you allow them to pay taxes in this state, you allow them to live and own land, they should be able to have a say-so in who represents them.

PAVIOUR: The last three Virginia governors - one Republican and two Democrats - eventually broadened restorations to include all people released from prison. Several hundred thousand people regained the right to vote. It was part of a national movement backed by groups from across the political spectrum. And that seemed to be the trend with Youngkin, who restored the rights of around 3,500 people in his first few months in office. In an interview last May, Kay Cole James (ph), who oversees the process, said she didn't envision big changes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

KAY COLES JAMES: The only thing we're looking for are efficiencies - ways to do it faster, quicker.

PAVIOUR: But something changed in the second half of the year when James' office restored rights to just 800 people. In a letter to a Democratic lawmaker last month, James said they're considering each applicant individually, but it's unclear what criteria they're using. Speaking to reporters last month, Youngkin defended the process.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GLENN YOUNGKIN: The first thing we're doing is providing every applicant a full review, and that's what we're charged to do.

PAVIOUR: The roots of the governor's authority over restoration extends to the 1902 Virginia Constitution, which was explicitly designed to disenfranchise Black voters. And Williams of Nolef Turns says that's one reason why this shouldn't be up to the governor at all.

WILLIAMS: We have been fighting to make this process be removed from the hands of a person and their emotion and how they feel in the moment and make it an actual process that can't be denied.

PAVIOUR: Some lawmakers from both parties have advocated changing the state constitution so that rights are restored automatically. Top Republicans in Virginia's General Assembly blocked any changes. But with all 140 seats up for grabs this November and Youngkin mentioned as a possible presidential contender, the fight will likely spill onto the campaign trail. For NPR News, I'm Ben Paviour in Richmond. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ben Paviour
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