A Virginia committee announced options Tuesday for streamlining the restoration of former felons’ voting rights, including actions the governor and legislature could take now to advance the process.
The possibilities, the committee said, include recruiting ex-felons who have not applied for restoration, partnering with private groups to expedite applications and creating a state agency to speed up the review and approval process.
Under the Virginia Constitution, the only way for felons to regain their voting rights is to seek restoration, in writing, from the governor. Attempts to amend the constitution to make the process automatic have proved unsuccessful for more than 30 years. Voting rights and civil rights advocates have called on Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and other governors to restore the rights of some former felons automatically through executive order.
The Rights Restoration Advisory Committee was formed in March by Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) after a proposed constitutional amendment to automatically restore voting rights failed in the General Assembly, despite the support of Cuccinelli and McDonnell.
The committee found that neither the governor nor the General Assembly has the power to automatically restore the voting rights of former felons. But the governor can use his authority to restore rights on an individual basis, the committee said.
The governor, the panel said, “possesses the authority to consider new approaches to the restoration of rights that could include proactive outreach and educational efforts . . . so long as governor’s action to remove political disabilities continues to be made on an individualized basis.”
The committee report also offered suggestions on ways the state could restore the rights of more people within the existing law, including having a state agency reach out to eligible ex-felons who haven’t applied and working with faith-based and community groups to improve the restoration process. The General Assembly could also fund additional efforts, including the creation of a state agency to review applications.
The report does not endorse any of the options presented.
Cuccinelli, the Republican nominee for governor this year, said he favors partnerships with private groups over creating a state agency. “It's an option, but we don’t need it,” Cuccinelli said of the possibility of a new agency.
Responding to the report on Tuesday, the Advancement Project, a Washington-based civil rights group, renewed its push for an executive order from McDonnell.
“It is wrong to continue Virginia’s policy of punishing and keeping citizens politically isolated for years after paying their debt and reentering society,” project co-director Judith Browne Dianis said in a statement.
McDonnell was expected to make policy announcements Wednesday in response to the report.
Cuccinelli said Tuesday that he doesn’t hold out much hope for passage of a constitutional amendment in the General Assembly. “ I don’t realistically think it has good prospects in the future,” he said, adding that he would again support a constitutional amendment, as he did this year.
As a state senator, Cuccinelli repeatedly opposed efforts in the legislature to amend the constitution to automatically restore felons’ voting rights. But the attorney general said Tuesday that he has come to support the idea, in part because of his dealings as a lawyer with clients who sought to have their rights restored.
“I’ve had people who wanted to get rights restored . . . you go through the processes and . . . it can be very, very frustrating,” Cuccinelli said. “That experience did play a role. It’s a real human side of it for me.”
Democrats discounted Cuccinelli’s change of heart as political rhetoric at odds with his record.
“The Ken Cuccinelli that many of us know is someone who, time and time again, has stood in the way of automatically restoring the rights of people who have paid their debt to society,” said Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Henrico), who served with Cuccinelli in the state Senate. “If this issue were actually important to the attorney general, he wouldn’t have waited more than three years to form a commission to explore recommendations.”
Cuccinelli is running against Democrat Terry McAuliffe for governor this year. The November election is being closely watched as one of the country’s few marquee contests this year.
McAuliffe issued a statement Tuesday, saying that he would support a constitutional amendment and that, as governor, he would “put in place a further streamlined and functional restoration of rights program.”
“My office will review all non-violent felons who have fully paid their debts to society,” McAuliffe’s statement read. “Provided that they have served their time without significant incident and have made all required restitution and paid all fees and fines, their civil rights will be automatically restored to them and they can fully rejoin civil society.”
Of the 13 bills on felon rights restoration proposed in this year’s General Assembly — most related to a constitutional amendment on the issue — only one made it out of committee. That bill passed the Senate by a 30 to 10 vote but languished in a House committee.
Cuccinelli praised McDonnell for the record number of felons’ rights — more than 4,800 — he has restored during his administration.
An estimated 350,000 Virginians are unable to vote because of a felony conviction. Virginia is one of four states where the power to restore voting rights rests solely with the governor. Felons never lose their right to vote in two states — Maine and Vermont — but in most states, ex-felons automatically regain the right to vote upon the completion of their sentence. In some states, there is a waiting period, and in others, felons must apply for restoration.
In Virginia, the restoration of rights includes the right to run for and hold public office, to serve on juries and to function as a notary public. Applicants convicted of a nonviolent offense must wait two years to apply; applicants convicted of a violent offense, a crime against a minor or an election-law offense must wait five years.
Cuccinelli said that he wanted to address the issue out of concern that rights restoration could become less of a priority under future governors. In November, Cuccinelli issued opinions strengthening the governor’s power to restore civil rights to felons, including one asserting that ex-felons are eligible to serve on juries, and another saying that former felons could seek political office.