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Judge sides with Youngkin in voting rights restoration FOIA dispute

Photo courtesy - Brad Kutner, Radio IQ
Photo courtesy - Brad Kutner, Radio IQ

Activists failed to convince a judge in Richmond Tuesday that a database used by Governor Glenn Youngkin to determine eligibility for felon rights restoration should be made public.

Richmond Circuit Judge W. Reilly Marchant ruled from the bench that the database was within the governor’s working papers and therefore exempt from state Freedom of Information laws.

This story was reported and written by Radio IQ

Virginia is the only state in the country that gives the governor the sole authority to restore someone's voting rights after they’ve been convicted of a felony.

Youngkin has come under fire for restoring the voting rights of fewer former felons than his Democratic predecessors. And while lawyers for the NAACP, including former Virginia Delegate Jay Jones, argued some of the database’s information was shared with other agencies making it subject to FOIA.

Jones grilled Youngkin's General Counsel Richard Cullen about what other agencies had access to the data.

Cullen, whose participation in the hearing was announced only a day earlier, said the database had become the "most important document" in Youngkin's effort to restore the rights of former felons.

But he also said the data was shared with local registrars if they called the governor's office to confirm someone's rights were restored, a point Jones argued put the documents outside the executive office and therefore subject to FOIA.

But Marchant found otherwise. The judge pointed to the personal nature of the rights restoration applicant’s information on the database, including social security numbers, and its use in deciding who gets their rights restored all make it fall under the working papers definition.

"This information is well within the governor's deliberative process," the judge said, suggesting, among flaws in the NAACP's claim, that the applicants never expected their information to be shared with the public.

Youngkin was asked about the lawsuit at an event in Roanoke earlier in the day, before the ruling had been issued. He said his office has the right to work in confidence.

“We had worked with the NAACP, we’ve given them 600 pages of documents and have tried to find a cooperative way to get through this and unfortunately, they were not satisfied," the governor said.

Outside the courthouse after the hearing, NAACP of Virginia President Cozy Bailey said the hundreds of pages Youngkin’s office shared still failed to show how the governor decides who gets the right to vote and who doesn’t.

“There’s a shroud of secrecy, and when we’re confronted with secrecy, we’re concerned there’s something that’s hidden and may be inequitable and that’s why we are fighting so hard,” Bailey said.

The fight at the Richmond city court may be over for now, but a similar fight over Youngkin’s rights restoration process is currently  playing out down the street in Richmond federal court. The next hearing in that dispute is scheduled for March.