Virginia Governor Signs Executive Order to Allow 69,000 Released Prisoners to Vote

March 17, 2021 Updated: March 17, 2021

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed an executive order on Tuesday to allow released prisoners to vote in a move he claimed will restore their civil rights.

“Going forward, any Virginian released from incarceration will qualify to have their rights restored, even if they remain on community supervision,” a press release from Northam reads.

According to the governor’s office, the change builds on several bipartisan reforms that have been made to the restoration of rights over the last decade, including streamlining the process of having rights restored and eliminating the prerequisite that court costs be paid.

Under current law, anyone convicted of a felony in Virginia loses the right to vote, serve on a jury, run for office, become a public notary, or carry a firearm until they serve their sentence and finish the probation period. Northam’s order restores all but the right to carry a firearm.

The new eligibility criteria, which will impact at least 69,000 Virginians, mirrors a proposed amendment to the Constitution of Virginia that has passed in the General Assembly. The constitutional amendment has to be passed again by the General Assembly in 2022 before going to a voter referendum, according to the state constitution.

Northam, a Democrat, said that too many of the laws were written during a time of racism and discrimination, and they still bear the traces of inequality.

“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,” Northam said.

Secretary of the Commonwealth Kelly Thomasson said that restoring the rights of Virginians who have served their time makes it easier for them to move forward with their lives.

“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,” Thomasson said.

In 2018, Northam made national headlines when a photo surfaced from his 1984 yearbook showing two young men, one dressed in a Ku Klux Klan uniform, the other in blackface.

Republicans in the state opposed restoring rights before inmates complete their sentences, including any probationary period.

“Democrats won’t be happy until they can do an absentee voting drive at Red Onion [State Prison],” said Jeff Ryer, press secretary for the Senate Republican Caucus, according to WINA.