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Virginia lawsuit over voting rights restoration clears early hurdle

George Hawkins Jr., an ex-felon who's asking a federal court to bring clarity to Virginia's voting rights restoration process.
Brad Kutner
Radio IQ
George Hawkins Jr., an ex-felon who's asking a federal court to bring clarity to Virginia's voting rights restoration process.

A lawsuit against Governor Glenn Youngkin over the felon voting rights restoration process can continue. Lawyers for George Hawkins, Jr., a former felon and Richmond native, argued in court Friday that the state’s felon voting rights restoration process under the Republican governor had become so opaque it violates his First Amendment rights.

Hawkins was convicted of attempted murder at the age of 17. He got out of prison a few months ago after serving 15 years. He tried to get his right to vote restored, but was denied.

In Virginia the governor has the sole authority to restore a felon’s right to vote, but specifics on that restoration process are undefined. Republican Governor Bob McDonnell was one of the first governors to simplify the process, and his Democratic successors continued that tradition. But restoration slowed under the Youngkin administration, and Friday U.S. District Judge John Adrian Gibney Jr. in the Eastern District of Virginia found Hawkins' denial gave him grounds to pursue his claims.

“Voting rights is very fundamental to the fabric of being free,” Hawkins said after Friday’s hearing. “My right to have a say so, and who has authority over me or laws being created, the government, it's very important.”

Jon Sherman with the DC-based Fair Elections Center, argued on Hawkins' behalf that Youngkin’s restoration process was not only arbitrary, but also violated his right to free speech.

“If candidates and political parties have a first amendment right to express themselves, surely the voters who are voting for those candidates and parties also have a right to express themselves,” he told Radio IQ.

Sheba Williams is executive director for Nolef Turns, a group that works with the formerly incarcerated in Virginia to help get their rights restored and aid in their transition after leaving prison. She’s been working on the cause since she had her own right to vote restored nine years ago.

Williams said the steps former governor McDonnell took were impressive, but the work done under Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam was game changing.

“They restored the rights of over 350,000 people with felony convictions through a process that had criteria,” she said. But after Youngkin took office, firing the rights restoration staff hired by Northam, he “threw that out the window.”

“It’s behind a closed door, there is no concrete criteria,” she said. “We do not know why people are denied or even approved.”

Nolef was also a plaintiff in the suit, but Gibney booted them from the fight Friday for lack of standing.

Meanwhile, lawyers for Youngkin and the state argued the right to vote wasn’t found in the First Amendment, but rather the 14th and 15th which protect the right to vote, not guarantee it.

“Plaintiffs invoke a uniquely First Amendment doctrine for licensing protected speech that simply does not apply to the very different issue of felon re-enfranchisement,” the Virginia Attorney General’s office wrote.

As for the arbitrary restoration process, Deputy Attorney General Steven Popps told Gibney assuming bad faith on the part of the governor is not enough for constitutional claims.

An order on the state's effort to dismiss the constitutional claims is expected in the coming days.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Brad Kutner is Radio IQ's reporter in Richmond.