By an executive order signed March 16, Virginia governor Ralph Northam restored voting rights to more than 69,000 felons released from state prisons and jails. The “Reforms Restoration of Rights Process” order immediately restores voting and other civil rights to any Virginian upon release from incarceration, even if they remain on community supervision, such as parole or probation.
Previously, state law removed a felon’s right to vote, sit on a jury, run for elective office, carry a firearm, or even become a notary public until the completion of both their sentence and probation period. Northam’s executive order restores all but the right to carry firearms (which can be restored only by state courts). The governor’s most recent action raises his total of ex-offenders whose voting rights he has restored to over 110,000.
In announcing his action, Gov. Northam noted that many laws removing civil liberties from ex-felons dated from periods of racism and discrimination, and they still bear the traces of inequality. The governor’s office also noted a recent trend in states to make easier the process for felons to regain voting rights and other civil liberties by simplifying the administrative processes, eliminating a waiting period before re-enfranchisement can be sought, or removing the pre-condition that all outstanding infraction-related fines, court costs and fees be paid in full (a continuing controversy in Florida).
Gov. Northam’s announcement declared that Virginia was “a Commonwealth that believes in moving forward, not being tied down by the mistakes of our past.” Further, if “we want people to return to our communities and participate in society, we must welcome them back fully,” and claimed his new action “does just that.”
The governor’s action was also in line with a proposed amendment to the state constitution that won preliminary passage by the Virginia legislature earlier this year (but, under the state constitution, will not become effective unless the legislature approves it again next year and state voters favor it in a referendum).
Northam’s executive order was also praised by former state governor Terry McAuliffe (also a leading Democratic contender to succeed Northam next year); Virginia does not limit the number of terms its governor can serve, but forbids a governor from having two consecutive terms.
During his time in office, ex-governor McAuliffe restored voting rights to over 170,000 convicted felons. He said that disenfranchisement of felons was a “racist Jim Crow law” which for over a century had succeeded in its goal of removing the right of Black Virginians to vote, and termed restoration of voting rights “a moral and civil rights issue… that speaks to the core of who we are as Democrats and as Virginians.”
Under the new executive order, felons will be able to apply to the Secretary of the Commonwealth for restoration of their voting rights as soon as they are released from incarceration, regardless of whether they are subject to any form of community supervision; once all data is assembled, the process is estimated to take between one and three months.
About the Author
Scott J. Limmer is a New York criminal attorney practicing primarily in Nassau, Suffolk, and Queens counties. He also represents students nationwide when they are charged with violations of their school’s code of conduct.