Governor Ralph Northam announced the restoration of civil rights, including voting rights, to 69,000 felons. In the Tuesday announcement, Northam said would restore the rights for anyone who had been released from incarceration.
“Too many of our laws were written during a time of open racism and discrimination, and they still bear the traces of inequity,” Northam said in a press release. “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.”
Virginia’s constitution currently requires the governor to individually sign off on restoring voting rights to felons; previous governors from both parties have restored rights to thousands of felons after they completed their sentences.
In 2021, the General Assembly passed a bill to amend the state constitution, effectively automatically restore voting rights to felons once they have been released from prison, ending the requirement for the governor’s individual restoration. However, the bill needs to be passed again next year to be sent to a referendum for approval by Virginia voters.
Advocates argue that when combined with disproportional incarceration of minorities, disenfranchising felons is a relic of racist laws that effectively keeps minorities from voting. Opponents argue that the high barrier to restoring rights is appropriate — felons should complete their whole sentence including probation and parole before having rights restored.
In video analysis, House of Delegates 83rd District candidate Tim Anderson said that Northam’s new policy of restoring rights before the sentence was completed creates a complication if a felon violates the terms of their probation. Anderson said that high recidivism rates make that scenario likely.
“This is where the awkwardness is going to come, is you have your voting rights restored by the governor while on probation. And if you violated your probation and you’re in custody, you’re still going to have your voting rights. And that’s something the voters are going to have to decide if they think is right or wrong,” Anderson said.
Anderson said he expects the issue to come up during the 2021 election cycle.
Northam restored other civil rights, including the right to serve on a jury, run for office, and become a public notary. Although felons also lose the right to possess a firearm, Northam does not have the authority to restore that right — felons must apply to the courts to have that right restored.
“Restoring the rights of Virginians who have served their time makes it easier for these men and women to move forward with their lives,” Secretary of the Commonwealth Kelly Thomasson said in the press release. “All Virginians deserve to have their voices heard, and these changes demonstrate the Northam Administration’s continued commitment to second chances, rehabilitation, and restorative justice.”
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