Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin won a free and fair election just 16 months ago. Now he’s working against the democratic process itself.
Glenn Youngkin, as leader of the only state in the nation that doesn’t allow governors to run for consecutive terms, is the rare politician who doesn’t have to worry about the next election. Unfortunately, he’s behaving as though the democratic process isn’t important to him at all.
Recently, Youngkin and his administration have come under fire for a number of moves and revelations around voting and democracy, including this past month reversing the trend set by Virginia’s previous three governors – two Democrats and a Republican – in restoring voting rights to the formerly incarcerated.
Virginia is one of just a couple of states where the governor controls whether someone with a felony conviction can regain their right to vote (a felony conviction in the commonwealth results in the automatic loss of certain civil rights, including the right to vote). The restriction has its roots in white supremacy and a concerted push to disenfranchise Black voters, and reversing well over a century of unequal access to the ballot box has been a bipartisan undertaking by the commonwealth’s executives for more than a decade.
Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell began streamlining the voting rights restoration process during his term, and Democratic Govs. Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam ramped up this effort even further, resulting in a system of automatically restoring the franchise to at least some people convicted of felonies who have completed their terms.
Youngkin has undermined the progress of his predecessors by ending this partially automatic rights restoration process and slowing the process for other Virginians convicted of felonies. Youngkin has also failed to specify what criteria he’s using to decide who does and doesn’t regain the right to vote, according to a lawsuit filed earlier this month.
The suit follows the Youngkin administration’s response to inquiries made by Democratic state Sen. Lionel Spruill late last month, who raised concerns about the drop in the number of voting rights restored under the current governor. Youngkin’s secretary of the commonwealth, whose office oversees the rights restoration process, confirmed to Spruill that the administration has ended the partial-automatic restoration process and said that re-enfranchisement requests are “considered individually.”
But blocking people from regaining their voting rights isn’t the only way Youngkin has undermined democracy in Virginia. Just a month ago, Youngkin’s and Attorney General Jason Miyares’ alleged efforts to meddle in a GOP nomination contest came to light when a local Republican Party committee filed a lawsuit claiming that their offices pushed to overturn the committee’s decision to hold a primary to nominate the GOP candidate in Senate District 17.
In Virginia, local party committees determine how a candidate for office is nominated – generally via primary, “firehouse primary” (essentially a sort of day-long caucus), or convention. In SD-17, where Del. Emily Brewer is vying with former NASCAR driver Hermie Sadler for the GOP nomination. The local committee opted for a primary, a move thought to benefit the former racing star because of his wealth and high name recognition.
Just days after accepting and posting the method of nomination publicly, the posting disappeared, and the suit claims that Youngkin’s chief of staff and the attorney general pressured Youngkin-appointed Elections Commissioner Susan Beals into forcing a convention on the local committee – a move thought to benefit Brewer because of the party insider connections she enjoys as an elected official.
The judge in the case agreed that Youngkin’s elections commissioner violated her duty by canceling the primary, which is back on and will be held on June 20. Youngkin is withholding records that could indicate his level of involvement in the primary-to-convention dispute, though his office’s response to a Smithfield Times Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request did acknowledge the existence of correspondence relating to the controversy.
Meanwhile, Youngkin’s hand-picked elections commissioner recently provided further evidence of his administration’s lack of commitment to democratic principles and practices.
In February, state taxpayers footed the bill for Beals’ two-night hotel stay as she attended the conservative Heritage Foundation’s elections conference. Only GOP elections officials attended the event, and a top Heritage Foundation official urged attendees to not publicly disclose their presence. Among the panels held at the conference were sessions on “Auditing Expertise,” “Mapping the Opposition: Funding Streams,” and “Election Integrity Updates from the States.” The Heritage Foundation has long been at the forefront of efforts to restrict voting rights, and its officials promoted the claims about voting fraud and rigged elections that were central to Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election.
Several weeks after she attended the conference, a staffer in Beals’ office improperly sent the Fairfax County Republican Committee the state’s voter file. Via a subsequent press release, Beal’s Department of Elections claims it has retrained employees and implemented sturdier safeguards to prevent similar future errors.
Democratic Del. Candi Mundon King is disappointed in the Youngkin administration’s focus on the “boogeyman” of alleged voter fraud, and she feels the Department of Election’s problems are impeding progress on restoring voting rights.
“When it comes to voting rights, when it comes to access, the governor and Commissioner Beals have shown that they are not serious about keeping the access to the ballot that Virginians have,” Mundon King told VPM News recently.