Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin was named as a defendant in a lawsuit accusing the state of disenfranchising voters in violation of a 150-year-old federal law. Photo by Ken Cedeno/UPI | License Photo
June 27 (UPI) -- Three disenfranchised Virginians are suing their state on accusations that their right to vote -- and possibly the right to vote for hundreds of thousands of others -- was stripped away by illegal century-old amendments to the state's constitution that bar those with felony convictions from casting ballots.
The lawsuit was filed Monday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, Protect Democracy and WilmerHale, accusing the state of violating a 150-year-old federal law that set out the conditions for Virginia's readmission to the United States following the end of the Civil War.
The Virginia Readmission Act of 1870 specifies conditions for the state's reintegration. In recognition that former Confederate states pursued actions to limit the number of Black voters, Congress stipulated that only people convicted of "felonies at common law" would be disenfranchised.
At the time, common law felonies were understood to be murder, manslaughter, arson and rape, among a few others.
However, the state disenfranchised those convicted of any felony following amendments to the state's constitution in in 1876 and then in 1902. Those amendments make Virginia one of three states whose constitution permanently strips citizens convicted of any felony of their right to vote, currently affecting 312,540 Virginians, nearly half of whom are Black, according to the lawsuit filed Monday.
"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 to this day," ACLU of Virginia Senior Supervising Attorney Vishal Agraharkar said in a statement.
"Our constitution has enabled mass disenfranchisement through decades of over-criminalization, and it turns out that was illegal."
The three plaintiffs in the lawsuit -- Melvin Wingate, 54; Tati Abu King, 52; and Toni Heath Johnson, 60 -- have been disenfranchised over felony convictions, two of which were for drug offenses.
"I lost my right to vote because I was convicted of charges related to drug possession," Johnson said in a statement. "But I've served my sentence. Being barred from voting is a fundamental part of my ability to have a voice in decisions that better my life, my family's lives and my community."
Wingate, who was convicted in the mid-1990s on charges of uttering, said that since his release in 2001, he has been unable to vote in five presidential elections, six midterm elections and five Virginia gubernatorial elections.
"As a minister, I'm a firm believer in second chances and being able to vote would be a chance for me to participate fully in my community," he said.
The advocacy groups are asking the court to find the state's enforcement of the amendments a violation of the Virginia Readmission Act and issue injunctive relief enjoining the state from enforcing them.