Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced on Tuesday that thousands of former inmates in the state would have their voting rights restored.
Right now, convicted felons in Virginia can ask the governor’s office to restore their rights after they complete probation. Moving forward, Northam said former inmates will be able to vote immediately upon release, though it will still need to be approved by his office.
“Probationary periods could last for years, but that’s also a time when individuals are living in the community…they should be able to exercise civil rights,” Northam said.
In preparation for this policy change, Northam said more than 69,000 individuals were identified and processed for rights restoration.
“Too many of our laws were written during a time of open racism and discrimination, and they still bear the traces of inequity,” said Northam. “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.”
The announcement shifts state policy closer to what the General Assembly is already moving towards.
Earlier this month, lawmakers passed a constitutional amendment that would automatically restore convicted felons’ rights upon release. To become law, the amendment must pass again in next year’s session and win a majority in a statewide voter referendum.
“It is past time to make this automatic and take the governor’s discretion out of the process,” Northam said.
House Democrats shied away from the Senate’s approach, which would’ve allowed inmates to vote behind bars. Some feared it went too far to gain sufficient public support.
Northam made the announcement on Tuesday at “Offender Aid and Restoration” in Richmond, which helps people re-enter society after incarceration.