Voting, civil rights groups call on McDonnell to make restoration of rights automatic

March 27, 2013

RICHMOND — Michael Edwards had been rejected three times to have his voting rights restored.

It took him almost 20 years to ask again.

In the 1970s, Edwards was convicted on a felony charge of distribution of marijuana and sentenced to eight years in prison. He served nine months, followed by more than seven years’ probation.

In the years since, he has started a Christian nonprofit to help recovering addicts. But for decades, Edwards didn’t cast a ballot, a privilege he wanted to regain.

And so he asked the state’s governor, first shortly after he finished his probation, then in 1990 and again four years later. Each time, Edwards was denied.

Unsure why his application was denied, he became increasingly frustrated with the process.

“I pretty well just gave up, not knowing what it was I was doing wrong, following the application to the best of my ability,” said Edwards of Galax, in the southwestern part of the state.

Edwards, 54, applied for the last time in 2010. The same year, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) approved his application. In 2011, Edwards voted for the first time since his conviction, in a local election.

While Edwards is thankful, he said the process is burdensome and could be made easier for former felons who have repaid their debt to society — and more efficient for the state — if the process was automatic.

Voting and civil rights advocates on Wednesday called on McDonnell to automatically grant some former felons’ rights through an executive order. The Advancement Project, Virginia New Majority and other groups launched a pledge campaign at takebackmyvote.org to raise awareness.

Earlier this year, McDonnell urged the General Assembly to pass legislation that would make restoration of rights automatic after a person completes his or her sentence, but the proposals failed to pass. Spokesman Jeff Caldwell said in a statement Wednesday that McDonnell has not ruled out executive action, though he declined to say whether the governor has such authority.

“The administration continues exploring all available options to make this process even more efficient and to provide second chances to these citizens as quickly as possible,” the statement read.

McDonnell has touted his record of restoring more former felons’ rights than any of his predecessors. Under Virginia law, only the governor has the power to restore civil rights, including the right to vote, to people convicted of a felony.

“The Virginia Code reinforces the governor’s broad authority to restore voting rights,” said Edgardo Cortés, director of Advancement Project’s Virginia Voting Rights Restoration Campaign. “We are urging him to use his constitutional authority . . . The legislature has failed to act, so now it’s time for the governor to take action.”

The group also has reached out to Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II, who recently announced the creation of the Attorney General’s Rights Restoration Advisory Committee. The panel aims to examine “what alternatives may be available within the existing framework of the Constitution of Virginia to restore the civil rights — primarily voting rights — of individuals convicted of certain nonviolent felonies who have completed their sentences and paid all fines and court-ordered restitution.”

Cuccinelli’s office did not respond to an inquiry about whether the governor has the constitutional authority to make the restoration of felon rights automatic.

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