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Governor Speeds Up Rights Restoration Process for Thousands

woman on steps
Dell Denise Williams was surprised to learn that the governor would be personally taking action to restore her civil rights. She joined him at the press conference alongside other returning citizens. (Photo: Whittney Evans/VPM News)

Governor Ralph Northam has taken action to fast track voting rights restoration for tens of thousands of Virginia residents with prior felony convictions. 

Northam made the announcement Tuesday at Offender Aid and Restoration, a non-profit that provides support to returning citizens. 

“If we want people to return to their communities and participate in society, we need to welcome them back fully,” he said. “It’s wrong to keep punishing people forever.”

The Virginia General Assembly approved a constitutional amendment last month that would automatically restore the voting rights of people who served out their jail or prison sentence. But in order to amend the constitution, lawmakers have to approve the measure again during the next general assembly session and put it before voters in a referendum. 

Right now, anyone convicted of a felony in Virginia automatically loses their civil rights, including the right to vote, serve on a jury or run for public office. 

The governor’s actions Tuesday will ensure that going forward, once a person is released from jail or prison, they’ll be eligible to have their rights restored -- and they won’t have to wait until after they’ve completed probation. 

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

Sixty-two-year-old Dell Denise Williams was surprised to learn that the governor would be personally taking action to restore her civil rights. She joined him at the press conference alongside other returning citizens. 

“My parents taught me the importance of voting,” Williams said. “And that’s the way change happens is by you voting. You can’t sit back and keep complaining about things. You have to participate.” 

Williams spent nearly seven years incarcerated at Fluvanna Correctional Center. She said she’s always kept an eye on politics, even while in prison.

“I have a lot of things that I would like to see change as far as prison reform and the criminal justice system and things of that nature,” Williams said. “It’s one less thing I have to worry about.”

The governor’s office has Identified 69,045 Virginians who are now eligible to have their rights restored as a result of the executive action. But until the constitution is amended, those eligible must still apply.