A lawsuit says a Civil War-era law setting restrictions on Virginia’s constitution should protect the voting rights of people convicted of certain felonies. The plaintiffs argue that any subsequent laws that further restrict such voting rights, violate the commonwealth’s constitution.
In June 2023, a coalition of advocacy groups that included the ACLU and the prestigious law firm WilmerHale, filed a lawsuit against Virginia Governor Glen Youngkin and other state officials. At issue is the claim that Virginia violated the 150-year old law that created the rules allowing it to be readmitted to the Union after the Civil War, said an article in The Hill.
According to the ACLU, the Virginia Readmission Act prohibited 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.”
The list of felonies at that time included murder, arson, burglary, and rape. However, just a few years later, legislators amended the law to expand that list; an amendment that the plaintiffs now claim is illegal, for it violates the Virginia Readmission Act.
“Some of the most pernicious attempts to suppress the voting rights of Black citizens originated in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, but they have consequences that persist today,” said Vishal Agraharkar of the ACLU of Virginia in a statement. “Our constitution has enabled mass disenfranchisement through decades of over-criminalization, and it turns out that was illegal.”
Melvin Wingate, one of the plaintiffs represented in the case, said, “As a minister I’m a firm believer in second chances and being able to vote would be a chance for me to participate in my community. But since I was released in 2001, I’ve been unable to vote in five presidential elections, six midterm elections, and five Virginia gubernatorial elections.”
The Hill said that Governor Younker’s office had no comment.