“When someone commits a crime, they must be justly punished,” the governor said during remarks in Richmond. “However, once these individuals have served their time and fully paid for the offenses they committed, they should be afforded a clear and fair opportunity to resume their lives as productive members of our society. America is a land of opportunity and second chances; a land where we cherish and protect our constitutional rights. For those who have fully paid their debt for their crimes, they deserve a second chance to fully rejoin society and exercise their civil and constitutional rights.”
NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous, who attended McDonnell’s announcement in Richmond, called the governor’s action “a courageous step.”
“When Governor McDonnell and I started this conversation a few years ago, it was clear that this was something that we both agreed on, that the state could and should do more to expand access to voting for people who had been wrongfully kept away from the ballot box,” Jealous said after the announcement.
McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin said the governor’s actions are the most he can do under Virginia law.
Under the changes, which will take effect July 15, a two-year waiting period to apply required for nonviolent offenders has been eliminated. Applicants convicted of a violent offense, a crime against a minor or an election-law offense must still wait five years.
Secretary of the Commonwealth Janet Kelly will meet with stakeholder groups over the next 45 days to develop the procedures to transition from the application-based system to a verification system.
Voting rights restoration has been central to McDonnell’s career in public office — an issue he also championed as a legislator, attorney general and gubernatorial candidate.
“This was a moral priority for McDonnell, more so than a political priority,” said former Virginia Commonwealth University political science professor Bob Holsworth. “This is going to be a significant part of the McDonnell legacy. It essentially casts him as someone who, while still very conservative on a number of issues, really wants to be inclusive.”
McDonnell’s announcement comes a day after a committee created by Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) reported that the governor could do more to streamline the process. Cuccinelli, who is running to succeed McDonnell this year, formed the committee after legislation to create a constitutional amendment to automatically restore voting rights for non-violent felons failed again in the General Assembly.