McDonnell to expedite rights restoration process for non-violent felons in Virginia

May 29, 2013

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell said Wednesday that he is waiving the waiting period and automatically restoring the voting rights of non-violent felons who have completed their sentences and satisfied certain conditions.

The decision by McDonnell, a former prosecutor who has supported restoring voting rights, underscores a long-held position. McDonnell (R) has granted the right to vote to more ex-felons than any of his predecessors at a time when other Republican across the country have adopted more strict voting requirements, including photo IDs and shortened early voting periods.

“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.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 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, convicted 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.

During McDonnell’s administration, more than 4,800 felons have been put back on the voting rolls during his administration. Cuccinelli came to support restoring voting rights for non-violent felons more recently, after repeatedly voting as a state senator against efforts to put a constitutional amendment addressing the issue on the ballot.

An estimated 350,000 Virginians are unable to vote because of a felony conviction. Supporters say that at least 100,000 of these could be affected by McDonnell’s action.

The Attorney General’s Rights Restoration Advisory Committee found that neither the governor nor the General Assembly has the power to automatically restore the voting rights of convicted felons. But the governor can use his authority to restore rights on an individual basis, the committee said.

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. Despite having the support of McDonnell and Cuccinelli. More than a dozen bills on felon rights restoration were proposed during this year’s legislative session, but most died in committee.

Also during this year’s session, Republicans in the General Assembly passed a law requiring photo ID at the polls, which McDonnell signed into law over the objection of Democrats and voter advocacy groups. Both praised the governor’s announcement Wednesday.

“Today’s announcement is certainly cause for celebration,” said Democratic Party of Virginia Chair Charniele L. Herring, a state delegate from Alexandria. “I’m honored to be a part of this historic bipartisan effort. Virginians everywhere should be proud.”

Voting rights and civil rights advocates have called on McDonnell and previous Virginia governors to restore the rights of some former felons automatically through executive order.

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