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John Westbrook had been in and out of trouble since he was a kid in New Jersey. He moved to Virginia to get a fresh start, but struggled with a cocaine addiction and wound up in prison.
After his release, he set about starting a new life. He didn’t think about voting — the state constitution takes away the civil rights of anyone convicted of a felony.
But in March, Gov. Ralph Northam restored them for thousands of Virginians with state felonies.
“When it hit the mailbox and I read it, I was kind of in tears about it,” Westbrook said. “It’s an honor to be able to vote. A lot of people take it for granted.”
Northam’s action opened the door for over 69,000 Virginians who had been released from jail or prison to vote, run for office, serve on a jury or be a notary public. But with thousands of new eligible voters and elections in June and November, the next step is to get them registered.
“They are coming back and we want them to be a productive citizen,” said Velvet Godwin-Smith, who chairs the Men Alleviating Negativity Foundation. “We want them to be part of the community and not an outlier.”
The MAN Foundation and the Portsmouth Sheriff’s Department partnered for a small drive-thru voter registration drive and resource fair Saturday at the department’s training academy in Portsmouth. The organization, which provides services to people re-entering society, says connecting them with resources about civic engagement could help them stay out of jail.
“We believe that everyone deserves a second chance — that’s our motto,” said Jaclyn Walker, the foundation’s executive director. “We feel like if you’ve served your time and you come out, then you a deserve a second chance, not only to work or to build your family again, but to be able to vote and make those decisions that affect not only you but your community at large.”
Virginia is one of a handful of states where people convicted of a felony lose their right to vote indefinitely, unless the governor intervenes. Both Northam and his fellow Democratic predecessor, Terry McAuliffe, have done that by the thousands.
Northam has restored rights to more than 111,000 people during his administration. McAuliffe restored over 173,000 while he was governor.
The most recent mass restoration of rights was based on the language of a proposed amendment to the Virginia constitution that would automatically restore rights at the end of sentences. The amendment needs to pass the General Assembly again next year before it goes to voters for approval.
In the meantime, Northam’s actions have helped shorten a process that previously required finishing probation. There are tens of thousands of people newly eligible to vote — Walker says many may not realize that.
“Before, since there it was this long, drawn-out process, they probably didn’t even consider it because there was so much you had to do,” Walker said.
A small group of men who had pre-registered for the event had similar stories — they may have registered to vote, but this would be their first time actually voting.
Jason Good, originally from Harrisonburg, chose to be released in the Portsmouth area last July, hoping there would be more job opportunities. Now he’s excited about the chance to have a say in local politics.
“I look forward to the chance to make my voice heard,” Good said.
Matt Jones, 757-247-4729, firstname.lastname@example.org