Youngkin’s stance on felon’s voting rights is a step backward


John Powers ’26 is a prospective Public Policy major who hails from Brooklyn, NY. He is a proud member of the College’s debate society. Contact him at

The views expressed in the article are the author’s own.

Last month, Gov. Glenn Youngkin, R-V.A., reversed an existing practice in the commonwealth of Virginia that automatically restored voting rights to those who finished felony sentences. Virginia’s state constitution dictates that felons’ voting rights must be restored solely through the governor’s approval. 

The discussion over this issue is nothing new. In 2013, Gov. Bob McDonnell, R-V.A., took a step forward by eliminating a waiting period requirement to apply for a voting rights restoration with certain stipulations. In 2016, Gov. Terry McAuliffe, D-V.A., followed by using his clemency powers to restore the voting rights of over 200,000 citizens. However, the Virginia Supreme Court struck down this executive order, finding it was overly broad and did not consider the unique circumstances of each individual person. 

Once again, we saw a shift away from strict disenfranchisement under Gov. Ralph Northam, D-V.A., who signed an executive action, which reformed the eligibility criteria for voting rights restoration in 2021. In effect, the voting rights of 69,000 citizens were restored. For some time, it appeared Youngkin would not depart from this path. As The New York Times reported, he restored the voting rights of 3,500 citizens during the first four months of his tenure. Yet in the subsequent five months, that number had declined to just 800. Then came his quiet reversal. 

In rolling back the voting rights of former felons, Youngkin made Virginia the sole state to disenfranchise any person convicted of any felony. He defended his action by arguing that individual application reviews are mandated by the 2016 state court ruling mentioned above. His answer masked the fact that he has walked away from the ethos of his 2021 campaign and the principles of democracy. 

A major part of Youngkin’s political appeal was his promise of a “new day” in Virginia and a clear break from the same old politicians. He even ran multiple ads of him and others walking through a crowd of zombie-like politicians, proclaiming that “the future belongs to us, not them.” Regardless of your personal political views, many would agree with the sentiment that we must progress and that ineffective politicians should not stand in our way. His message was one of hope and efficiency.

However, Youngkin’s recent move is a stark departure from that message. While the sharply divided 2016 court ruling focused on the en masse nature of McAuliffe’s executive order, it does not deem restoring the voting rights of all former felons signature-by-signature unconstitutional. In other words, the court decision does not necessarily force the governor to walk us back this far as he implies. He could follow loose eligibility criteria like Northam and restore rights case-by-case. Instead, Youngkin chooses to not universally restore rights. 

This shift does little to change the perception that rights are to be determined by the partisan composition of government. It does nothing to walk away from the racist history of the voting rights restoration process either, all while cheapening the value of rights. Indeed, the disenfranchisement system in Virginia dates back to its 1902 constitution, which, as Matt Ford, a writer for The Atlantic  describes, aimed to “destroy black political power.” 

Virginians should also be worried about the efficiency of this process, especially considering the slowdown in Youngkin’s restoration numbers. As NPR reported, Governor Youngkin’s team has been remarkably silent on how he will evaluate each application and did not respond to questions of how many more people’s rights will or may be restored. 

Clearly, Youngkin’s actions are unnecessary, unjust and inefficient. So much for a “new day” in Virginia. 

At their core, restrictions on former felons raise important questions about morality and our democracy. Why should a citizen who committed a felony and paid their debts back to society be punished with a revocation of a fundamental right? Isn’t a judicial sentence supposed to be the avenue to punish an individual? 

Youngkin and those who agree with him may state that disenfranchisement serves an important public safety purpose. However, they ignore the studies showing that participation in civic life reduces recidivism. Others may argue that some crimes are so severe that punishment merits disenfranchisement. For example, Alabama deprives the right to vote from people who have committed crimes considered to be of “moral turpitude.” 

Beyond Alabama, it seems that there is widespread consensus that enfranchisement expansion should only be afforded to non-violent past-incarcerated individuals. For instance, Gov. Kim Reynolds, R-I.A., signed an executive order in 2020 that restored the voting rights of most ex-felons, excluding those who committed homicide or sexual abuse. Additionally, McDonnell’s actions, mentioned above, were limited to only non-violent ex-felons. 

Though restricting voting rights from the most immoral individuals in society may seem acceptable at first, it begs many questions. Must a voter be a moral person? What constitutes the most immoral behavior? Why does the legal definition of a felony serve as the model for this? Who gets to determine morality? And why do we accept that other rights are not restricted by morality, but voting is? 

Considering these questions, this morality framework is not as rock-solid as one might think. After all, if society does think morality should play a role in determining enfranchisement, then it would make more sense to disenfranchise the most violent, immoral ex-felons, not all of them like Virginia does. You would be hard-pressed to find someone who would equate a felony white-collar crime with felony rape or manslaughter, yet this is precisely what the disenfranchisement process does. 

Youngkin’s recent course of action is inconsistent with the policies of his Republican and Democratic predecessors, with the laws of respective states, with his campaign promises and with the principle of democracy. He could have brought us into a “new day” in Virginia as promised. Instead, he has chosen to pull us back into another era. In the 2023 General Assembly elections this November, voters should remember his actions. 


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