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Virginia Governor Restores Voting Rights to 69,000 Formerly Incarcerated Felons

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, accompanied by his wife Pamela Northam, makes an announcement during a news conference, Richmond, Va., February 2, 2019. (Jay Paul/Reuters)

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam on Tuesday issued an executive order to restore voting and other civil rights to former felons upon completion of their sentence, a change that will immediately apply to more than 69,000 formerly incarcerated Virginians.

The Democratic governor’s order, which comes just months ahead of the state’s gubernatorial and state legislative elections, makes Virginians convicted of felonies eligible to vote immediately upon release from prison, including individuals who remain on probation or parole.

The action reverses the state’s previous law, which permanently stripped anyone convicted of a felony in the state of their right to vote, serve on a jury, run for office, become a public notary or carry a firearm.

“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 announcing the order.

“We are a Commonwealth that believes in moving forward, not being tied down by the mistakes of our past,” the governor added. “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.”

Nationwide roughly 5.2 million Americans have lost the right to vote because of a felony conviction, according to The Sentencing Project. Black Americans are impacted by felony disenfranchisement laws at nearly four times the rate of non-black Americans, the group says.

The order follows a constitutional amendment approved by the state’s 2021 General Assembly session that worked to restore voting and civil rights to formerly incarcerated felons.

The website of the Virginia Secretary of the Commonwealth was updated to reflect that the changes had taken effect immediately and that former felons looking to restore their firearm rights should contact their local circuit court.

“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 Kelly Thomasson said in a statement.

“I am proud of Governor Northam’s initiative to welcome these individuals back into society,” she added. “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.”

Northam publicly committed himself to addressing racial inequality in 2018 after a picture was found in his medical school yearbook in which two men are depicted wearing racist garb. One man is wearing a Ku Klux Klan uniform while the other is wearing blackface. Northam initially admitted to appearing in blackface but then denied that he appeared in the image, though he admitted to having donned blackface on other occasions in his youth.

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