While many lawmakers in the South are introducing laws aimed at ensuring fewer people can vote in future elections, at least one state is trying to restore the franchise to more people.
Virginia’s Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam on Tuesday announced that he has signed an executive order restoring voting rights to over 69,000 people in the state who were previously convicted of felonies and have served their time in prison, reports CNN.
Under current law in Virginia, anyone convicted of a felony loses an array of civil rights, including the right to vote, serve on juries or run for public office. The state Constitution gives the governor the sole power to restore most of those civil rights.
Previously, the state’s policy required former felons to finish serving “active supervision,” including probation or parole, before they were eligible to have their rights restored by the governor. Northam’s move means Virginians who have been released from prison but still remain on probation or parole now are eligible to vote.
“Probationary periods can last for years. But that’s also time in which a person is living in the community, rebuilding their lives,” said Northam of his decision. “They should be able to exercise those civil rights, even if they are still under supervision.”
69,045 people in Virginia were immediately affected by Northam’s action on Tuesday and had their voting rights restored.
“Letting these folks vote or exercise other civil rights isn’t a threat to public safety,” Northam said. “We want people to move forward—not be tied down by the mistakes of their past.”
According to ACLU Virginia, one in five Black Virginians cannot vote because of felony disenfranchisement, even though Black people make up only about 20 percent of Virginia’s population. Though the state has yet to release demographic information about those whose voting rights have been restored under Northam’s executive order, the restoration of civil rights to people who have served their time in prison is a necessary step towards addressing racial injustices embedded in Virginia’s laws.
In 1902, Virginia ratified the constitution that today still disenfranchises people convicted of felonies, as well as bars them from serving on juries and as public officials. After the ratification of that constitution, and the passage of a host of laws specifically aimed at making it easier to criminalize and disenfranchise Black citizens, African-American voter turnout in Virginia dropped by 90 percent, according to data shared by the Richmond Public Library.
Virginia’s legislature has proposed a measure to amend the state’s constitution so that people who have served their time for felony conviction can have their voting rights automatically restored. Northam says he has restored civil rights to over a 111,000 people in Virginia since his time in office, including those impacted by Tuesday’s executive order.