Va. ramps up restoration of voting rights for some ex-felons

July 15, 2013

Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell could restore the voting rights of 10,000 nonviolent ex-felons by the end of his term — nearly twice as many as he has granted in 3½ years in office, administration officials said Monday.

But because Virginia does not have a statewide felon database or electronic records before 1995, the administration faces an uphill battle over the next six months to locate the thousands of ex-felons scattered across the commonwealth. To help, the state has added resources and advocacy groups are expected to guide people through the process.

“The biggest challenge involved locating felons who had been out of the legal system for years or even decades,” said Secretary of the Commonwealth Janet Kelly. “We could easily find the felons who were currently in the system or who had previously expressed an interest in getting their rights back.”

Beginning Monday, people can now complete a form on the Secretary of the Commonwealth Office’s Web site and mail or fax the document to the office. Starting Aug. 1, the form can be submitted online. A toll-free number for information is also available.

Felons convicted of statutory burglary or breaking and entering with violent intent will be classified as violent offenders and will not be eligible for automatic rights restoration. McDonnell (R) will allow people who committed those crimes without violent intent — about 85 percent — to remain in the nonviolent offender category.

Restoring felon voting rights has been a priority of McDonnell’s administration and fulfills a campaign pledge to implement a fairer system but getting to Monday’s announcement was not easy. In 2010, McDonnell aimed to shorten the deadline to have decisions, first within 90 days and ultimately within 60 days of receipt of completed felon applications. At one point, the governor suggested that felons submit a letter outlining their contributions to society , but critics objected to the idea as an unfair burden that could be a barrier for some poor, less-educated or minority applicants.

Since 2010, McDonnell has granted voting rights to 5,235 nonviolent former felons — significantly more than any of his predecessors. This year, he pushed to expand rights restoration, urging the General Assembly to pass a constitutional amendment. The effort failed.

Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) reported May 28 that the governor could do more to streamline the process. A day later, McDonnell announced that he would automatically restore rights on an individual basis to nonviolent felons who have completed their sentence, probation or parole, paid all court costs, fines and restitution, and have no pending felony charges.

Since then, the administration met with felon rights advocates to determine how to implement the process, and some expressed concerns about how the new policy would work.

On Monday, advocates praised the new policy but urged the next governor to go further to restore rights to about 100,000 felons who are considered nonviolent. Under the Virginia Constitution, the only way for felons to regain their voting rights is to seek restoration, in writing, from the governor.

“The commonwealth still needs a permanent solution for the unjust policy of felony disenfranchisement — one that provides automatic restoration for everyone, regardless of their conviction,” said Advancement Project Co-Director Judith Browne Dianis, who called for a constitutional amendment. “This is the only solution that truly upholds our values of redemption, freedom and an inclusive democracy.”

Gubernatorial candidates Cuccinelli and Terry McAuliffe (D) have expressed support for voting rights restoration and McDonnell’s initiative.

“Finding all those affected will certainly be a challenge but one worth undertaking,” McAuliffe campaign spokesman Josh Schwerin said.

Cuccinelli spokesman Brian Gottstein said the attorney general has not reviewed the new policy but reiterated that the program is part of a successful criminal justice system.

Officials expect an increase in rights restoration requests as a result of the changes — especially ahead of the Oct. 15 deadline to register to vote in the November election — and are adding four staff members to process applications. The state Board of Elections also will undergo a technology upgrade to more readily update the list of eligible ex-felons each week, a process that was being done manually and monthly.

Kelly’s office has approved about 500 of the 1,500 applications the department has received since May 29. The Department of Corrections in May began to identify offenders scheduled for release who would qualify for automatic rights restoration. After ensuring they meet the criteria, the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s Office will process individual grant orders.

McDonnell’s administration will not focus on creating a comprehensive felon database. Trying to do so between now and the end of the term in January, officials said, would take time and resources away from restoring rights for as many people as possible.

Errin Whack covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post, including the commonwealth’s General Assembly and the 2013 gubernatorial race.
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