Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced Tuesday that he has restored voting rights to more than 69,000 former felons who have completed their prison sentences but are still on probation.
Northam's move mirrors a proposed constitutional amendment recently approved by the General Assembly that would automatically restore voting rights to people convicted of felonies once they serve their time and are released from prison. To take effect, the amendment must be approved by the legislature again next year and must win approval from voters in a statewide ballot referendum.
Until now, former felons who have served their sentences were not eligible to have their civil rights restored until after they completed probation. The new eligibility criteria announced by Northam means that, going forward, people convicted of felonies will become eligible to have their rights restored once they serve their prison time, although the governor's office would still have to approve it.
In addition to being able to vote, the rights include the right to serve on a jury, run for office and become a public notary.
“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 statement.
“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,” he said.
Under the state constitution, the governor can restore civil rights to former felons. If the constitutional amendment is approved, the restoration of rights will become automatic when a felon is released from prison.
“We are making a tweak to the eligibility criteria that makes a huge impact on these people's lives after they have returned to their communities,” said Secretary of the Commonwealth Kelly Thomasson.
Northam made his announcement at OAR of Richmond, a reentry services provider for former inmates as they return to society.
“This change will have a tremendous impact on the people we serve, enabling more Virginians to have their rights restored sooner,” said Sara Dimick, Executive Director of OAR of Richmond.
Virginia is one of just three states whose constitution permanently disenfranchises citizens with felony convictions, but gives the governor the discretion to restore civil rights.
Reforms over the last decade have made the restoration of rights process easier by streamlining the application and eliminating the waiting period and a requirement to pay court costs and fees before rights can be restored. Before Tuesday's announcement, Northam had restored civil rights to about 42,000 people. His predecessor, Gov. Terry McAuliffe, restored rights to about 173,000 people.
Some Republicans are opposed to restoring rights before inmates complete their sentences, including any probationary period.
“Democrats won't be happy until they can do an absentee voting drive at Red Onion (State Prison)," said Jeff Ryer, press secretary for the Senate Republican Caucus.