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Northam restores voting rights for 69,000 with felony convictions

Gov. Ralph Northam (D) said he hopes Virginia “can get closer to being a state where people can move beyond their mistakes, and where justice is our priority.”
Gov. Ralph Northam (D) said he hopes Virginia “can get closer to being a state where people can move beyond their mistakes, and where justice is our priority.” (Steve Helber/AP)

RICHMOND — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) said Tuesday that he has restored the voting rights of 69,000 people convicted of felonies under a policy change that speeds up the process, no longer requiring former prisoners to go through lengthy probations before qualifying to seek restoration.

Virginia is one of a handful of states that permanently disenfranchise all those convicted of felonies unless they have their rights restored by the governor, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Felons never lose their right to vote in D.C.; Maryland automatically restores voting rights when a felon completes his or her sentence, although a conviction for vote-buying requires action by the governor.

This year, Virginia’s General Assembly gave preliminary approval to a constitutional amendment that would automatically restore voting rights for felons as soon as they complete their incarceration. That measure would have to be approved by the legislature again next year and then put to the voters in a referendum before going into effect.

In the meantime, Northam said he was taking a cue from that proposal and changing the timing of his process, reviewing rights as soon as someone is freed.

“Probationary periods can last for years,” Northam said in prepared remarks as he announced the change at a Richmond nonprofit. “But that’s also time in which a person is living in the community, rebuilding their lives. They should be able to exercise those civil rights, even if they are still under supervision.”

The move is part of a broad effort by Northam and Democrats who control the General Assembly to expand access to voting, even as Republican lawmakers across the country push in the opposite direction.

Virginia moving quickly to make expanded absentee voting permanent

This year, the General Assembly passed measures to permanently expand absentee voting and became the first state in the former Confederacy to approve a Voting Rights Act that enshrines protections for minority voters and makes it harder to change access to polling places. Northam is expected to sign the measures into law.

Northam already signed a measure moving local elections to November from May in an effort to boost turnout for local races.

Felons lose a host of civil rights in Virginia in addition to the vote, including the right to run for office, serve on a jury, be a notary or own a firearm. A governor can restore all but the firearms right, which a felon must apply separately to have restored.

Republican governor Robert F. McDonnell kicked off the modern effort to restore rights for nonviolent ex-felons, intervening in several thousand cases before leaving office in 2014. But his successor, Terry McAuliffe (D), took the matter to a different level.

McAuliffe issued an executive order that would have automatically restored voting rights to hundreds of thousands of former prisoners. Republicans challenged him in court, and the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that he could only restore rights in individual cases, not en masse.

Virginia high court invalidates McAuliffe’s order restoring felon voting rights

So McAuliffe began a process that eventually restored voting and other civil rights to about 173,000 felons once they had served their sentences and completed a period of community supervision, or probation.

When Northam decided this year to hasten the process, his advisers identified 69,045 individuals who were eligible for restoration. The addition of those people, announced Tuesday, brings Northam’s total so far to more than 111,000 felons whose rights have been restored.

“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, a nonprofit organization that helps formerly incarcerated people reenter society, said in a news release from the Northam administration.

Northam said he hopes that the constitutional amendment ­passes to make the criminal justice system more fair. “We must change it so we can get closer to being a state where people can move beyond their mistakes, and where justice is our priority,” he said.