Advocates worry about Virginia’s new program to restore voting rights to felons

July 6, 2013

With a week left until Virginia has to determine how it will restore the voting rights of certain nonviolent felons, some advocates helping to shape the program are concerned about how the new policy will work.

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) announced in late May that he would waive the waiting period and automatically restore the voting rights of nonviolent felons who have completed their sentences and satisfied certain conditions.

Grass-roots groups working with the McDonnell administration to streamline the process have spent weeks wrestling with details such as how to determine who will qualify, how to find the thousands who could be eligible, and whether felons should be required to pay outstanding fines before they can regain voting rights.

Restoring the rights of nonviolent felons has been a priority for McDonnell, who is in the final year of his term and cannot run for reelection. About 100,000 of Virginia’s estimated 350,000 felons are nonviolent, supporters of the governor’s program said.

McDonnell’s administration has restored the voting rights of more felons than any previous governor’s administration — more than 5,000 since 2010 — and the governor’s announcement in May was greeted by advocates as a departure from the Republican Party’s efforts to toughen voting laws.

Despite their concerns about the details of the program, advocates working with the administration praised McDonnell’s efforts and said they are hopeful that the new guidelines will help more felons regain their voting rights.

Edgardo Cortés, director of the Virginia Voting Rights Restoration Campaign for the Advancement Project, said that although the administration has worked diligently, the scope of the project may have been underestimated.

“I think it has turned out to be a bigger undertaking than anybody expected in terms of making the process as easy as possible for people and recognizing limitations the state has,” Cortés said. “In terms of expectations, it’s going to look a little more complex than what people would assume ‘automatic’ is.”

A working group that includes the secretary of the commonwealth, Janet Vestal Kelly, and groups that work with felons has met several times.

“We have heard their concerns,” Kelly said. “We believe we are in a good place to address most, if not all, of them.”

Administration officials say they have added resources to Kelly’s office and are working with state agencies and investing in new technology to make the application process more efficient.

The new guidelines will not change for applicants convicted of a violent crime, a crime against a minor or an election-law offense. Those felons still must wait five years.

Michael Edwards of S.O.B.E.R House in Galax said the governor’s decision on who will be classified as a nonviolent offender under the program could affect several thousand people. Among the offenses McDonnell recently moved into the violent category are statutory burglary and breaking and entering.

According to the secretary of the commonwealth’s Web site, the office is still reviewing the lists of offenses as they relate to automatic restoration. Administration officials said they are seeking to address advocates’ concerns about how those two offenses will be classified.

“In my small area, of about 100 or so applications, I’m looking at probably a third of those that are not going to fall under the category they used to fall into,” Edwards said of those whose crimes will be considered violent. “They’re going to have to wait another two or three years in order to qualify.”

Clovia Lawrence, a community-oriented radio host and co-chair of the Rolling for Freedom Project, said grass-roots organizations will have to do much of the heavy lifting to help more felons regain their rights.

“We don’t want the process to be longer,” Lawrence said.

The McDonnell administration, she said, is “working with a small staff now, but the governor wants to get it done. I think it’s realistic. With all of the groups . . . I’m not understanding why we can’t get it done. It’s all a matter of who’s going to put in the work.”

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