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Virginia Gov. Youngkin criticized over 'slow,' 'secretive' voting rights restoration process

NAACP says opaque decision-making by governor's office on restoring voting rights discriminates against people of color.

FAIRFAX COUNTY, Va. — The Fairfax County prosecutor is adding his voice to a chorus of complaints about the slow pace of voting rights restoration for Virginia citizens returning from prison.

The NAACP is accusing Governor Youngkin of using a painfully slow and opaque process to decide whether give back the right to vote to felons who’ve done their time.

The governor’s office sees things very differently.

In Virginia, it’s up to the governor to determine if a felon who has served his or her time should get back their right to vote. Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R-VA) has shifted away from a system used to restore rights by the last three governors – including Republican Bob McDonnell -- and has faced pushback ever since.

Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney Steve Descano says the process should be automatic. 

“This is a Jim Crow law that is meant to keep African Americans off the voting rolls," he said of the legislation that gives the governor the decision on the restoration of rights.

“We demand that the governor adopt clear and publicly stated criteria for restoring voting rights," said Robert Barnett, the Virginia NAACP president.

After reviewing more than 100 documents from the Youngkin Administration, the NAACP concluded the Republican governor has dramatically slowed the process.

Tens of thousands of returning citizens got their rights back every year under previous governors. But the NAACP says that number was cut by more than half last year, and has now been slowed even more.

“Gov. Youngkin’s slow, opaque process is certain to have a discriminatory impact on Black Virginians and other Virginians of color," Barnett said.

The Governor’s Office referred WUSA9 to a letter to the NAACP from the Secretary of the Commonwealth. Kay Coles James wrote, “race, religion, or ethnicity” – play “absolutely no role” in the decision. But she wrote the governor would be less likely to quickly restore voting rights to anyone who “used a firearm in the commission of a crime.”

Prosecutor Descano believes restoring voting rights will actually make the Commonwealth safer. 

"One of the ways you help people build a life and not commit more crime is to make them feel part of the community. There’s no surer way to make people feel like they’re part of the community and valued by it than to let them vote and make their voice heard at the ballot box," he said.

African Americans are less than 20% of Virginia’s voting-age population. But a lawsuit filed last month says they’re nearly half of those disenfranchised.

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