Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced Tuesday that thousands of former felons qualify to have their voting and other civil rights restored after completing their sentences.
“Too many of our laws were written during a time of open racism and discrimination, and they still bear the traces of inequity,” said Mr. Northam, a Democrat. “We are a commonwealth that believes in moving forward, not being tied down by the mistakes of our past. If we want people to return to our communities and participate in society, we must welcome them back fully — and this policy does just that.”
The governor’s executive order immediately applied to 69,000 Virginians who already have finished their sentences. In the future, former felons will immediately be eligible to vote after their release from prison even if they’re under community supervision, though the governor’s office will still need to approve the restoration of rights.
The move speeds up the timeline for former felons to get some of their civil rights back.
Currently, former felons had to go apply to the governor’s office after they had completed their probation. State law bans felons from serving on a jury, running for office, becoming a public notary and carrying a firearm.
The governor’s office noted that Virginia is one of only three states “whose constitution permanently disenfranchises citizens with past felony convictions, but gives the governor the sole discretion to restore civil rights.”
Mr. Northam made the announcement at the headquarters of Offender Aid and Restoration (OAR) of Richmond, a legal aid nonprofit that helps former inmates return to their communities after incarceration.
“This change will have a tremendous impact on the people we serve, enabling more Virginians to have their rights restored sooner,” Sara Dimick, executive director of OAR of Richmond, said in a statement. “OAR is committed to removing barriers for those who seek to be contributing members of their communities, and we look forward to working with newly eligible individuals to ensure they can exercise their civil rights.”
According to The Sentencing Project, 5.2 million Americans are barred from voting because of a felony conviction. The data show that disenfranchisement was especially prevalent for Black people in 2020, with 1 out of every 16 Black American losing the right to vote because of a felony, a rate 3.7 times greater than non-Black Americans.
Mr. Northam‘s executive order was designed to mirror a constitutional amendment that the General Assembly passed this year that would automatically restore the civil rights of any person released from prison.
However, the amendment will need to be passed again in 2022 and be approved in a statewide voter referendum before it can go into effect.