Voting is a civil right. Each state must comply with Federal civil rights laws and the US Constitution, but each state has flexibility in determining if people convicted of a felony lose the right to vote in local, state, and Federal elections.
Virginia became the first state to ban felons from voting, in 1830. When Virginia adopted its second constitution that year, white males who met the minimum property requirements lost the right to vote once they were convicted of an "infamous offence." Prior to the Civil War, most other states followed the example of Virginia and banned felons from voting.1
since 1830, the Constitution of Virginia has declared that people convicted of a felony lose the right to vote
Source: For Virginians: Government Matters, Virginia Constitution of 1830
That restriction has been retained and expanded in all subsequent constitutions. In 1851, conviction for bribery was added as a disqualifying act. Specific reference to felony convictions was added starting in 1869. County officials were directed to create and maintain registers of all people convicted in local courts, which documented who had lost the right to vote.2
since 1830, the Constitution of Virginia has declared that people convicted of a felony lose the right to vote
Source: For Virginians: Government Matters, Virginia Constitution of 1830, 1851, 1869; 1902, Commonwealth of Virginia, Constitution of Virginia, 1971
Disfranchising felons was not a law passed by the General Assembly originally to suppress the African-American vote in 1830, since the opportunity for a free black man to vote in 1830 was tiny. However, the governor took note of how the percentage of free blacks in jail was four times greater than the percentage of whites, so the racial element was considered when the 1830 law was passed.
The Fifteenth Amendment was ratified in 1870, theoretically ensuring black men the right to vote. The Virginia legislature then took advantage of a provision in the 14th Amendment, which said:3
The key clause was "except for participation in rebellion, or other crime." In 1876, the General Assembly added petit larceny to the list of crimes which barred a person from voting. Arresting and convicting black men of petty theft was an easy process, when judges were exclusively conservative white men and juries were filled with white men who still viewed blacks through the lens of enslavement. Those convicted might serve a short sentence, but could be blocked from voting for the rest of their life.
The potential for Federal troops to ensure equal application of the law disappeared in 1877. The US Army was withdrawn from Virginia as part of the bargain to resolved the disputed 1876 presidential election and place Rutherford B. Hayes in office. Without Federal law enforcement, local officials were able to use the power of white sheriffs and white juries to selectively convict black men of crimes and disfranchise a bloc who voted consistently for Republican candidates (the "party of Lincoln"), or for the Readjuster Party until it collapsed in 1883.
Intimidation and manipulation of the voting process were used to disfranchise voters not expected to support conservative Democratic candidates, minimizing the impact of the Fifteenth Amendment. Election officials segregated voters into white and "colored" lines, then selectively sped the white voters through the process while delaying black voters.
Courts were required to send a list of those convicted to registrars. Electoral boards, registrars, and local police were almost always conservative white men. Democratic operatives, stationed at key precincts on election day, reviewed the list of those who had been convicted of petit larceny or felonies and challenged the right of black men to vote.
Disfranchising black Republicans and associating the Democratic Party with white power made Virginia one of the one-party states in the South. After the defeat of the Readjuster Party in 1883, the primary of just the Democratic Party determined who would be elected in the general election. That one-party dominance based on maintaining white supremacy lasted for nine decades. A republican was finally elected governr in 1969, as a relative liberal who made promises to support racial equality. The realignment of the political parties in Virginia, in which the Republicans became the conservative option for local/state offices - as well as national offices - occurred in 1973.
In 1982, 63% of the voters rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would have allowed the General Assembly to modify Section 1, Article 2 of the state constitution and alter the automatic disfranchisement of felons. After the turbulent 1960's and passage of civil rights legislation at he Federa level, the automatic loss of voting rights for petit larceny was dropped from the Virginia constitution in 1971. That mitigated the impact of the disfranchisement provision, but did not eliminate racial imbalance. Felons were still automatically disfranchised after implementation of the constitutional amendments in 1971. Disfranchisement based on felony convictions still discriminated against blacks, since minorities were convicted at far higher rates than whites:4
Governors had a way to counter the racial imbalance. When a new state constitution went into effect in 1870, the governor gained the power to restore voting rights. A Virginia Supreme Court decision in 1883, Edwards v. The Commonwealth, ruled that pardons should not be used to restore citizenship rights, but governors could still take a separate action to re-enfranchise those who had been disqualified.
The provision in the state constitution that stripped away the right to vote from those convicted of petit larceny was retained in the 1902 constitution, but removed in the 1971 revision. As of 2021, the state constitution still said (emphasis added):5
Federal courts in 1996 (Perry v. Beamer and in 2000 (Howard v. Gilmore) upheld the legality of Virginia's process for disfranchising felons. Judges ruled that the state was not violating the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
In 2002, Democratic Governor Mark Warner revised the process for restoring voting rights. He reduced the traditional waiting period after sentencing for non-violent crimes from five-seven years down to three years. In 2013, Republican Governor Bob McDonnell made 350,000 felons eligible for restoration, if they had completed their sentences and paid all costs mandated by a court. Until that time, only 3% of felons had managed to complete the process to apply for restoration and get the governor to allow them to vote.
In 2016, Governor McAuliffe issued a blanket restoration of rights for all felons who had served their time and had completed any supervised release, parole or probation requirements. The governor used the powers granted to him in Article V, Section 12 of the Constitution of Virginia to restore civil rights, including the right to vote to 206,000 people in the state's database of felons eligible for restoration under McAuliffe's criteria.
Much of the news coverage suggested focused on how the newly-enfranchised voters might support Democratic candidates in the 2016 election, and Republicans filed suit to block the blanket restoration of rights. The Virginia Supreme Court quickly ruled in a 4-3 decision that the governor's blanket restoration order was not constitutional, and he had to individually re-enfranchise the felons:6
in 2016, Governor McAuliffe issued a blanket pardon for 200,000 felons who had served their time and had completed any supervised release, parole or probation requirements
Source: Commonwealth of Virginia, Restoration of Rights (April 22, 2016)
To overcome that Virginia Supreme Court ruling, the governor proceeded to process paperwork for the 206,000 individuals. He restored the right to vote, plus the right to hold public office, serve on a jury, and act as a notary public, but did not restore the right to purchase or possess a firearm.
In his final State of the Commonwealth address in 2018, Governor McAuliffe told the General Assembly and guests in the balconies:7
In his official portrait, Governor McAuliffe was painted in his workday office with an open notebook, working on rights restoration.8
in his official portrait, Gov. Terry McAuliffe showed himself working on his rights restoration initiative
Source: Richmond Times-Dispatch
Of the 168,000 whose rights were restored prior to the 2017 state elections, 46% were black and 42,000 people registered to vote. If they voted at the statewide average, then the governor's actions resulted in 19,000 additional votes in the 2017 elections.
That would equal an additional 1% of the total electorate. Even if all 19,000 new voters had supported the Democratic candidates for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General, the additional votes would not have affected he outcomes of those races. Republican concerns that restoration of rights might benefit Democratic candidates had more relevance in the 2017 races for some of the 100 House of Delegates seats. A few were very close, and the 94th District race ended in a tie vote.9
the demographics of the restoration of rights reflected the demographics of felony convictions in the court system
Source: Commonwealth of Virginia, Restoration of Rights Demographics
The right to vote was important enough for 42,000 felons to chose to register. As one recipient noted:10
Lifting the ban on voting by felons was presented by the McAuliffe administration as overcoming a Jim Crow-era law, designed to suppress the black vote. Some stories traced the ban back to new restrictions on voting that were included in the 1902 state constitution. That 1902 document did restrict the electorate, but the disfranchisement of felons had occurred 70 years earlier and was unrelated to later efforts to suppress the African-American vote.11
based on updates from the Virginia Election & Registration Information System (VERIS), local registrars remove newly-convicted felons from lists of registered voters
Source: Virginia Department of Elections, General Registrar and Electoral Board Handbook (p.75)
Governor McAuliffe's attempt at a mass restoration of rights in 2016, and then his individual actions for felons, did not change the laws of Virginia. Neither did the restoration of rights authorized by Governor Northam, who followed Governor McAuliffe's example and restored voting rights to 126,000 felons in his term.12
People convicted of a felony (but not misdemeanor) in Virginia still lose the right to vote in Virginia automatically. If those convicted of a felony had been registered, them local election officials in 133 Virginia jurisdictions remove their names from the rolls of eligible voters.
United States attorneys provide lists of people convicted of a felony in Federal District Courts to the Virginia Department of Elections, which updates the Virginia Election & Registration Information System and provides the names to local registrars. The Virginia State Police uses its Central Criminal Records Exchange to updates the Virginia Election & Registration Information System monthly, sharing details of people convicted of felonies in state courts.13
To regain the right to vote in Virginia, people convicted in state or Federal court in Virginia of a felony still needed a clemency action from the governor. The 2021 General Assembly approved a constitutional amendment to automatically authorize felons to vote, once they were released from incarceration and had completed the terms of their sentence.
Control of the House of Delegates switched to the Republican Party in the 2021 elections. The constitutional amendment was dropped after 2022 General Assembly did not pass it for a second time as required before getting on the ballot. The 2021 proposal was:14
Restoration if voting rights by the governor after a felony conviction helped Don Scott become the leader of the Democratic Party in the House of Delegates in 2022. He had served seven years in Federal prison for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute crack cocaine. He pled no contest in 1994, claiming that he was guilty of transporting moneyy but never sold or transported cocaine.
Republican Governor Robert McDonnell restored Scott's voting rights. In 2019, Don Scott was elected to the House of Delegates. When running for re-election two years later, he discovered that his neighbor needed a kidney transplant. He volunteered to be the donor, even though the hospital stay would limit his time to campaign. The former felon's comment later was:15
In 2022, Del. Don Scott forced a change in the party's leadership there. The Democrats voted to replace Del. Eileen Filler-Corn as the Minority Leader, and selected Del. Don Scott as the new Minority Leader. He became the first convicted felon to serve in that position, and cheerfully said:16
People convicted in other states, including those convicted in Federal courts there, may have their voting rights restored by whatever process is used in that state. Some never withdraw the right to vote, some automatically restore it after completion of the jail sentence, some restore the right automatically after completion of parole/probation (sometimes after an extra waiting period), and some require action such as a pardon by the governor.
If a felon's rights have been restored by the process used in another state, then Virginia will allow that person to vote.17
felons convicted in other states whose rights were previously restored by that state's process may vote in Virginia
Source: Virginia Department of Elections, Virginia Voter Registration Application