RICHMOND, Va. -- Tuesday marked a new beginning for thousands of Virginians who can now vote once again.
Governor Ralph Northam announced people who have been released from prison will have their civil rights restored under a new policy -- even if they're still on probation.
A ceremony Tuesday at OAR, a reentry service organization, stirred powerful emotions for E. Gorman III, and Robert Thompson. They’re former felons who served their time, and now have the right to vote.
“It gives me a sense of pride to be able to be involved in our election process,” said Gorman, 34.
“It's a good feeling on the inside,” said Thompson, 67. “I feel good that I accomplished something.”
Northam restored the rights of 69,000 felons using criteria for eligibility that mirrored a proposed change in the Virginia Constitution.
Inmates who are released from prison and who have finished their probation will no longer need to appeal directly to a sitting governor.
“Restoring the rights of people to vote is extremely important,” said Thompson. “It's step one for people coming out of prison. The most important thing is we have to work on programs, housing and stuff like that.”
“It's about hope,” said Northam. “And you know, it's something that I dealt with a lot in health care, and now we're in a situation where people are returning to society and for people to have hope that tomorrow's going to be a better day."
The General Assembly passed an amendment in their most recent session restoring the civil rights to felons who complete their sentences. It must be passed again next year before it is put before voters in a referendum.
“You know, we talk about recidivism rates and we actually have a very low recidivism rate in Virginia compared to other states,” said Northam. “But part of keeping those rates low is to give people their rights back when they've served their time."
Some Republicans oppose restoring inmates' rights before they complete their sentence and probation.
"Democrats won't be happy until they can do an absentee voting drive at Red Onion [State Prison],” Jeff Ryer, the Press Secretary for the Senate Republican Caucus told the Associated Press.
But for one former felon, it was a good day to be back in the game.
“The only thing that keeps everyone on a level playing field is having the right to vote,” said Gorman. “You know, One vote for one person. It wasn't always that way, but I'm glad it is now.
With Tuesday's announcement, Northam has restored the rights to more than 111,000 people since taking office.