The Bulletin

Part of the apology tour or business as usual? Northam announces he restored civil rights to nearly 11,000 felons

By: - February 13, 2019 5:01 am

Gov. Ralph Northam outlined a package of proposed funding increases for schools that includes an additional 2 percent raise for teachers. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury – Dec. 11, 2018)

Gov. Ralph Northam, determined to stay in office and make amends after admitting to wearing blackface, announced Tuesday he’s restored voting rights to nearly 11,000 felons since he took office.

The move wouldn’t be especially newsworthy in normal times. His predecessor, Terry McAuliffe, streamlined the process and restored rights to more than 150,000 residents, a move heralded by advocacy groups as righting a wrong that dates back to Jim Crow and disproportionately impacts black residents.

But Northam’s announcement, coming as he rolls out an “apology tour,” raised some questions. Namely, did the governor just restore a bunch of peoples’ rights to try to look better as he weathers unprecedented scandal?

No, he did not, according to data provided by Northam’s Secretary of the Commonwealth Kelly Thomasson, whose office oversees the process. But he did just do a big batch – 2,545 – three days after his yearbook page was publicized.

“It was totally coincidental timing,” she said.

It had been 125 days since he signed off on the last round of 5,000 over two days in October.

Thomasson said the timing comes down to when the various state agencies that vet the requests finished their work and the administration’s first press release on the issue just happened to follow the fact that they just reached a big, round number for the first time.

She said Northam is following the same criteria and process established by McAuliffe.

The ACLU of Virginia seized on the announcement to encourage Northam to go further and “champion passage of an amendment to the Virginia Constitution that would guarantee the right to vote for all citizens over 18.”

“Rather than focus on the questions of whether and when someone deserves to get back the right to vote, as we have for decades, we need to oppose the very idea that government should be able to take away this fundamental right in the first place,” wrote Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga in a letter to Northam.

“All citizens should be able to use their right to vote. Full citizenship means having a voice in government.”

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.