Republican Gov. Glenn Younkin recently revived a Jim Crow-era voting restriction with little fanfare by rolling back his predecessors' policy of automatically restoring voting rights to people with felony convictions who had completed their prison sentences. Until 2016, this law had left one in five Black Virginians banned from voting for life—four times the rate of whites. Now a felony conviction will once again mean lifetime disenfranchisement unless Youngkin personally restores an individual's voting rights through a case-by-case process he has yet to define.
As Bolts Magazine's Alex Burness details, Youngkin's move is a complete reversal of the practice of previous governors from both parties. In 2013, Republican Bob McDonnell restored voting rights to 8,000 people who had fully served their sentences for certain nonviolent offenses, but the biggest shift came in 2016, when Democrat Terry McAuliffe began automatically restoring the rights of all citizens who had completed their sentences—170,000 in total. Democrat Ralph Northam expanded those efforts in 2021, allowing everyone no longer in prison to vote again, which re-enfranchised 126,000 citizens.
Northam's policies put the state in line with a majority of the country, but Youngkin's about-face means that Virginia now has the nation's most restrictive felony disenfranchisement regime, an approach even more draconian than in several more conservative Southern states. And unless lawmakers or his successor changes course, the criminal justice system's racial disparities mean this restriction will once again see Black voters disenfranchised at higher rates than whites.
As the Atlantic's Matt Ford wrote in 2016 following McAuliffe's reform, the racist origins of Virginia's felony disenfranchisement system are unambiguous. Although Virginia had disenfranchised people convicted of a limited set of the most "infamous" crimes since before the Civil War, lawmakers greatly expanded the ban in 1902 to cover all felonies. They also adopted a new constitution that featured further voting restrictions such as poll taxes and literacy tests as part of an explicit effort to purge Black citizens from political life—a campaign that successfully ushered in Jim Crow.
One of the architects of that 1902 constitution was Carter Glass, then a state senator who later served in the U.S. Senate and became best known as the author of the landmark Glass-Steagall banking regulation law during the New Deal. But before making his impact on the world of finance, Glass made his mark as a dedicated segregationist.
The voting restrictions he promoted "[do] not necessarily deprive a single white man of the ballot, but will inevitably cut from the existing electorate four-fifths of the negro voters," he said as delegates gathered to rewrite the constitution. "That was the purpose of this convention; that will be its achievement." Glass proved even more effective than he prophesied: Within a few years, the number of Black registered voters had fallen by more than 90%.
Virginia's elections this fall and in 2025 can, however, reshape the fate of this Jim Crow voting law. Democrats passed a constitutional amendment to make Northam's policy permanent in 2021, but to place such an amendment on the ballot, state law requires the legislature to approve it a second time, and Republicans refused to do so after retaking the state House later that year.
But if Democrats hold the state Senate and retake the House this November, they could start the amendment process over again. And if a Democrat succeeds Youngkin, who is term-limited in 2025, they could reinstate the policy of re-enfranchising everyone not in prison even if lawmakers don't act.