Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has cleared the path to the ballot for tens of thousands of ex-felons by officially reinstating their civil rights.
Sitting around a table at Rising Hope United Methodist Church in Alexandria, Northam met with a group of ex-felons discussing what it means to them to be able to vote, run for office or serve on a jury.
“Too many of our laws were written during a time of open racism and discrimination, and they still bear the traces of inequity,” Northam said.
Kelvin Manurs is a former addict and served time behind bars. He founded support and recovery group Arm & Arm to help and educate people like him. He said he’s grateful for the governor’s announcement that over 69,000 former convicts will be able to more fully participate in society.
“This is necessary for the community to accept individuals when they return home from incarceration,” he said.
The move comes amid a growing political battle over who should have the right to vote around the country. Republican-controlled legislatures across the U.S. have introduced measures that would make it harder to cast a ballot.
Restoring ex-felons’ voting rights is considered a partisan issue because of the perception that they’ll be more likely to vote for Democrats.
Anyone convicted of a felony in Virginia loses many of their civil rights, such as the right to vote, serve on juries or seek public office. Northam has the sole power to restore many of these rights under Virginia’s constitution.
Raul Crespo spent 20 years behind bars. He was released just 53 days ago and says it was a hard endeavor, but he wants to give back to his community.
“We need a helping hand to get back on that horse and get back in the race,” he said.
For Raul, as he adjusts to all the changes the decades have brought, he says his focus now is helping others realize their potential.
There’s now a proposed change to the state’s constitution to make that happen automatically once a sentence has been served.
Virginians on probation will also qualify.
CNN and WTOP’s Zeke Hartner contributed to this report.