The ACLU of Virginia, Protect Democracy, and WilmerHale on the behalf of individual plaintiffs Melvin Wingate, Tati Abu King, and Toni Heath Johnson, as well as Bridging the Gap In Virginia, filed a first-of-its-kind lawsuit in federal court challenging the Virginia Constitution’s felony disenfranchisement provision. The case, filed in the Eastern District of Virginia, claims that Virginia is in violation of the 150-year-old federal law that established the terms of Virginia’s readmission to representation in the United States Congress after the Civil War.

Today, Virginia is one of only three states whose constitutions automatically disenfranchise all people with felony convictions unless the governor restores their right to vote. And of the three, Virginia is the only one that further requires everyone with a felony conviction to individually petition the governor to restore that right.

Following the Civil War, former Confederate states intent on keeping newly freed Black voters away from the ballot box targeted them with a growing number of criminal convictions, and then stripped people with criminal convictions of their right to vote.

To prevent such targeted disenfranchisement, the Virginia Readmission Act explicitly prohibits Virginia’s Constitution from being “amended or changed to deprive any citizen or class of citizens of the right to vote, except as a punishment for such crimes as are now felonies at common law.” In 1870 these crimes were: murder, manslaughter, arson, burglary, robbery, rape, sodomy, mayhem, and larceny.

But just a few years later, Virginia amended its Constitution, in violation of the Virginia Readmission Act, to disenfranchise people convicted of a far broader set of crimes.

Today, the Virginia Constitution disenfranchises all people convicted of any felony – including those that were not “felonies at common law” in 1870. As examples, drug offenses or publishing a document someone else forged — both felonies for which plaintiffs named in this suit lost their right to vote — were not felonies at common law in 1870. The lawsuit argues that Virginia cannot disenfranchise people convicted of those or other categories of crime without violating the Virginia Readmission Act.

This lawsuit seeks to redress this wrong and restore the voting rights Congress guaranteed to Virginia’s citizens in 1870. 

Read more details about the case here.

Related News Coverage:

Lawsuit takes aim at Va. law stripping felons of voting rights| Washington Post 

Lawsuit challenges Virginia law that strips felons of voting rights| The Hill

ACLU, other groups sue Youngkin over rights restoration process| Richmond Times-Dispatch 

Lawsuit claims Virginia’s felony disenfranchisement violates Reconstruction-era federal law| AP

Can a suit tied to an 1870 law finally end Va.’s feudal felon rights restoration regimen?| Virginia Mercury 

He's suing Virginia's governor to get his voting rights back: 'I paid my dues'| WTVR

Attorney(s)

Vishal Agraharkar, Eden Heilman, Andrea Fenster, Jared Davidson(Protect Democracy)

Pro Bono Law Firm(s)

WilmerHale

Date filed

June 26, 2023

Court

United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia

Judge

U.S. District Judge John A. Gibney Jr.

Status

Filed

Case number

3:23-cv-00408