Virginia’s McDonnell on pace to restore voting rights to record number of felons

September 30, 2012

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell is on pace to achieve his campaign-trail pledge to restore the right to vote to more felons than any governor in Virginia history.

Since announcing a streamlined, more efficient program in May 2010, McDonnell (R) has restored the rights of more than 3,800 felons and could clear hundreds more ahead of the November election.

The issue is personal for McDonnell, a former prosecutor, and many are highlighting his record as progress on the issue. But others say that with an estimated 350,000 Virginians unable to vote because of a felony conviction, McDonnell could do more to re-enfranchise those who have paid their debt to society.

“Governor McDonnell should be commended for the folks he has allowed to integrate back into the electoral process in Virginia,” said Myrna Perez of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, a nonpartisan public policy group focused on issues of democracy and justice. “We believe that inclusion is going to reap great benefits in terms of public safety and more robust democracy. But Virginia can and should go further.”

Virginia is one of four states where the power to restore voting rights rests solely with the governor. In Virginia, the restoration of rights also 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, and applicants convicted of a violent offense, crime against a minor or an election-law offense must wait five years.

In 2007, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) signed legislation restoring voting rights upon a felon’s completion of sentence, including prison, parole and probation. The move re-enfranchised more than 50,000 felons. In the District, rights are restored automatically after release from prison.

McDonnell has approved 90 percent of applications from nonviolent offenders and 80 percent from violent offenders. His office has a self-imposed deadline of 60 days to process completed applications.

Secretary of the Commonwealth Janet Kelly said completed applications that were submitted by Aug. 15 will receive priority status for processing ahead of the state’s Oct. 15 voter registration deadline.

Kelly said her office has assigned a third staff member to handle this year’s increased demand.

“In a [presidential] election year, there is an uptick for people who are interested in getting their rights back,” Kelly said.

More than 3.7 million Virginians cast ballots in the 2008 election, about 75 percent of the state’s registered voters, according to the state Board of Elections.

As of Friday, Kelly said 3,839 felons have had their rights restored in Virginia under McDonnell, who leaves office at the end of next year. As governor, Timothy M. Kaine (D) restored the voting rights of 4,402 felons; Mark Warner (D), 3,486; Jim Gilmore (R), 238; and George Allen (R), 460.

Still, McDonnell’s record falls significantly short of efforts by governors in states with similar rules.

In 2005, then-Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) announced that he would restore voting rights to an estimated 80,000 Iowans, waiving the requirement for them to petition his office. But shortly after taking office, his successor, Terry Branstad (R), reversed that decision. Since then, only a few Iowa felons have had their rights restored.

Similarly, in Florida, more than 150,000 felons had their rights restored under Gov. Charlie Crist, who cleared the way for automatic restoration in 2007. But that decision was overturned by his successor, Gov. Rick Scott (R). Fewer than 80 felons had their rights restored in 2011, Scott’s first year in office.

Kelly said that without a budget for outreach efforts, her office relies largely on partnerships with advocacy groups and word of mouth to spread the word about the restoration process.

Clovia Lawrence, a radio host in Richmond who has worked on restoration efforts for nearly a decade, said she has seen a difference under McDonnell.

“He’s doing it,” she said. “The process is working. It’s really quicker. That was his word.”

Although the number of felons regaining their voting rights has increased in the past three administrations, how McDonnell’s successor might approach the issue is unknown — which is part of the problem, said Sen. Don McEachin (D-Henrico).

“It’s completely at the governor’s discretion if somebody or nobody gets their rights,” said McEachin, who supports automatic restoration and favors a constitutional amendment to change the process. “Rather than depend on a particular governor and their approach, there should be one approach that transcends all governors.”

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