Virginia governor’s civil rights restoration efforts are underwhelming, activists say

"If the governor were truly committed to rooting Jim Crow out of our constitution he would join us in calling for the elimination of... felony disenfranchisement."

VA Gov. Ralph Northam (D) announced Tuesday he had restored voting rights to more than 10,000 Virginians with felony convictions. CREDIT: Alex Wong/Getty Images
VA Gov. Ralph Northam (D) announced Tuesday he had restored voting rights to more than 10,000 Virginians with felony convictions. CREDIT: Alex Wong/Getty Images

As Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) struggles to recover from the backlash to a racist yearbook photo that resurfaced earlier this month, he is touting his work restoring civil rights to people with felony convictions. Northam underscored his belief in “second chances” in a statement Tuesday, while calls for his resignation have intensified.

Northam’s rights restoration work is not new, as the governor has followed in the footsteps of his predecessors who also worked to re-enfranchise people with felony convictions, but according to his office, the governor has restored the right to vote, serve on a jury, run for public office, and become a notary public to 10,992 Virginians with felony convictions.

“I believe in second chances and making our Commonwealth more open and accessible to all,” Northam said the release. “Virginians who have repaid their debts should be able to return to society, get a good job, and participate in our democracy. This is an important achievement that marks my administration’s unwavering commitment to fairness, rehabilitation, and restorative justice.”

Activists say it’s not enough.

Virginia is one of three states that permanently bars people with felony convictions — also known as returning citizens — from voting, though governors in the state have taken to using executive orders to restore the rights to many people convicted. Notably, Virginia governors are required to restore rights individually, after a court ruled that former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) did not have the power to restore rights for 206,000 returning citizens en masse. McAuliffe then worked to restore the rights of 173,166 people individually over the course of 18 months, including about 156,000 in the first year.


To put Northam’s work since taking office in context, he’s restoring rights at less than one-tenth the speed of his predecessor. That, Georgina Cannan, vice president of Spread The Vote, told ThinkProgress, indicates rights restoration is actually a lower priority for the Northam administration than the governor’s statement Tuesday makes it seem.

“It’s not a radical number,” Cannan said. “It’s not that. And I also think that is very much a symptom of how this apology tour has gone. It doesn’t feel genuine.”

Cannan also said it was unfair to bring the plight of returning citizens into a perilous political moment for Northam.

”[Rights restoration] has been kind of an emotional roller coaster for our returning citizens in Virginia,” she said. “To me, it’s kind of troubling that these people [with felony convictions]… they’ve gone through this roller coaster and now they’re being used as a political pawn.”

Claire Gastañaga, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Virginia, declined to speculate about the timing of Tuesday’s statement but said if Northam is genuinely invested in restoring rights to the disenfranchised, then he should push for a constitutional amendment.


“If the governor were truly committed to rooting Jim Crow out of our constitution he would join us in calling for the elimination of… felony disenfranchisement,” Gastañaga said in an interview with ThinkProgress. “The only way to get where the governor says he wants to go is to amend the constitution.”

As with every state that disenfranchises people with felony convictions, African Americans in Virginia are hit the hardest: According to Gastañaga, one in five black Virginians is currently unable to vote.

“What I would want to see from him in terms of leadership on this issue… is saying that the right to vote would belong to all Virginians,” Gastañaga said. “[Saying,] ‘I understand [restoring rights is] not enough, and the reason why it’s not enough is that we have a criminal justice system that’s deeply infected with racial disparities.”‘

The photo that triggered widespread calls for Northam’s resignation was originally published by a right-wing website on February 1, the first day of Black History Month. The 1984 image was included on a yearbook page dedicated to Northam and shows two people, both holding canned drinks. One person is wearing a white Ku Klux Klan robe and a hood, while the other is in blackface, wearing a white hat, black jacket, white shirt with a bow tie and plaid pants.

Northam’s alma mater, Virginia Military Institute, and his medical school focus, pediatrics, are listed under the photo.

Hours after the photo was published, Northam apologized and took responsibility for the photo, but did not say which person was him.


“I am deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now,” he said in a statement. “This behavior is not in keeping with who I am today and the values I have fought for throughout my career in the military, in medicine and in public service.”

By the next morning, however, Northam said he was not actually in the photo. He has refused to resign despite calls from nearly every top Democrat in the state and in the country.

On Monday, BuzzFeed reported that, rather than resigning, Northam would embark on a “listening tour,” in an effort to engage communities across the state in conversations about race. He is also reportedly planning to sign a bill that would bring down Confederate statutes in the state if the legislature passes it.