RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – A Virginia man hoping to regain his voting rights is suing Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) in federal court over his administration’s changes to the state’s voting rights restoration process, claiming they violate the First Amendment.
The lawsuit was filed Thursday in the Eastern District of Virginia by the Fair Elections Center on behalf of Gregory Williams, a Virginia resident who spent 19 years in prison and is waiting to learn if Youngkin will restore his voting rights, and the Richmond-based nonprofit Nolef Turns.
The suit comes in response to changes the Youngkin administration made to the voting rights restoration system, which the lawsuit argues violate the First Amendment because it “constitutes an unconstitutional arbitrary licensing scheme regulating the exercise of the right to vote.”
“This case is about the exercise of the First Amendment-protected right at the heart of America’s democratic system of self-government and the exercise of arbitrary control over that right,” the lawsuit asserts.
Virginia and Kentucky are the only states that permanently disenfranchise residents with past felony convictions, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Virginia residents with felony convictions must petition the governor to regain their right to vote, run for office and serve on a jury.
Under the Youngkin administration’s changes, people with felony convictions seeking to have their voting rights restored are now required to file an application given to them once they are released and are considered on a case-by-case basis.
“The process is constitutional and will be defended vigorously in court,” Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter said in a statement.
Jon Sherman, Fair Elections Center’s litigation director and the attorney leading the lawsuit, described the case as straightforward, telling 8News that the Youngkin administration’s rollback establishes “vague” standards for those trying to get their voting rights back after serving their time, like Williams.
“Officials with absolute authority to selectively enfranchise U.S. citizens with felony convictions may grant or deny voting rights restoration applications for pretextual reasons or no reason, while secretly basing their decision on information—or informed speculation—on the applicant’s political affiliations or views,” the lawsuit argues.
The Youngkin administration’s move is a shift from a policy change implemented by former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell (R) to automatically restore voting rights to people convicted of certain nonviolent felonies who meet specific requirements.
McDonnell expedited the restoration process for those convicted of certain nonviolent felonies who have met certain qualifications after serving out their sentences by making the restoration automatic.
In 2021, then-Gov. Ralph Northam (D) removed the requirement that Virginians with felony convictions have to finish being under community supervision — parole or probation — before having their voting rights restored.
The suit, which names Youngkin and Secretary of the Commonwealth Kay Coles James as defendants, claims that the governor does not deny applications, but that certain applications “are indefinitely held in limbo by the Governor’s office, without any final decision.”
Williams, who was released from prison in 2007 after 19 years, is seeking to vote and his restoration application with the governor’s office is pending, according to the lawsuit.
Nolef Turns, a nonprofit that advocates for those with prior felony convictions, will have to divert money, paid staff time and other resources to help inform those looking to regain their voting rights of the changes under the new process.
“It’s another barrier put in place for those with past felony convictions, and there’s no clear guidelines,” Sheba Williams, the executive director of Nolef Turns, told 8News. “We don’t know what the criteria is for the process now.”
Williams and Nolef Turns want the court to declare the changes unconstitutional and order the state to stop using the process and replace it with a system that “restores the right to vote based upon specific, neutral, objective, and uniform rules and/or criteria and within reasonable, definite time limits.”
People with prior felony convictions can also go online to apply to have their voting rights restored.