The excited calls from felons started coming in on Friday. There was a 54-year-old construction worker from Richmond who was convicted on a drug charge decades ago and had never voted. There was a young father, busted for dealing years ago, now trying to bounce back.
“He wanted to be an example for his children — that it’s their constitutional right to vote, and it’s their responsibility to vote,” said Richard Walker, founder of Bridging the Gap in Virginia, a group working to help restore felons’ voting rights. “I’m going to be swamped.”
Walker is on the leading edge of far-reaching change, set to take effect Monday, in how Virginia treats its felons.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), moving to deepen reforms that were a key priority of his predecessor, Robert F. McDonnell (R), has reclassified a series of serious drug crimes to make it dramatically easier for tens of thousands of former prisoners to have their voting rights restored.
Those convicted in Virginia of manufacturing drugs, distributing drugs, having the intent to distribute drugs or “accommodating” the sale of drugs will now be put in the same category as those who were found guilty of mail fraud, check kiting, embezzlement or simple drug possession when it comes to processing requests to have their voting rights restored.
The drug-dealing and other major drug charges had been on the state’s “violent/more serious” list of offenses. Bumping them to the list of nonviolent crimes will have far-reaching implications. Since McDonnell’s reforms, those types of lesser offenses are processed in a faster, more streamlined fashion, taking weeks or months rather than years. Unlike most states, Virginia requires ex-felons to proactively pursue their voting rights — they are not automatically restored.
Virginia law, the American Civil Liberties Union says, has prevented hundreds of thousands of people — many convicted of drug crimes — from voting, and advocates point to racial disparities. About 45 percent of those arrested for drug offenses are black, said Edward Hailes, general counsel for the Advancement Project, a civil rights group active on the issue.
“We should see a large number of African Americans in Virginia getting their rights restored more automatically,” he said, adding that one in five can’t vote because of felony convictions. “Virginia is making progress but is still far behind most of the states in the union.”
Attorney General Eric Holder, speaking at the Georgetown University Law Center this year, called for further changes in Virginia and elsewhere.
“Eleven states continue to restrict voting rights to varying degrees even after a person has served his or her prison sentence and is no longer on probation or parole,” Holder said. “It is time to fundamentally reconsider laws that permanently disenfranchise people who are no longer under federal or state supervision.”
Some, including Michael Mukasey, who was an attorney general during the Bush administration, have pushed back against Holder’s advocacy. Holder, Mukasey wrote in the Wall Street Journal, displays nothing “but contempt for the notion that there is a moral taint that attaches to a felony conviction — a taint that should require that one at least show some brief period of law-abiding existence before full readmission to the polity.”
In Virginia, the House of Delegates, controlled by the GOP, has repeatedly blocked bills, some sponsored by Republicans, seeking the automatic restoration of rights for nonviolent felons.
A spokesman for House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) declined to comment on those bills or McAuliffe’s efforts.
McAuliffe also decided to shorten the waiting period from five to three years before “rehabilitated violent offenders,” from arsonists to murderers, can file the detailed paperwork, including reference letters, they need to try to win back their voting rights.
“Each petition for a Virginian’s rights to be restored, whether that person’s offense falls within the nonviolent category or the violent/more serious category, is carefully evaluated by the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office,” Rachel Thomas, a spokeswoman for McAuliffe, said in a written statement. “The Governor believes that for those who have served their time and paid their debts to society — they should be given a second chance to participate in the civic process.”
Walker travels the commonwealth’s hot spots of former prisoners — including Norfolk, Richmond and Alexandria — trying to help offenders, many of whom wrongly assume that they can never vote again. He served 14 months for cocaine possession and struggled to find work after his release, which spurred a relapse into drug use before he eventually found treatment and a job. His application for voting rights was initially rejected, but later accepted, by the McDonnell administration. He doesn’t know the reason for the early rejection.
Under the new policies, drug offenders will be able to speed through the process with little friction, which will help them rebound and live as full citizens, Walker said.
“Hopefully with this, individuals will at least be able to sell the fact, ‘I have my rights restored,’ ” Walker said. “Potentially, employers will see that and be able to look at their skills and knowledge and abilities to perform the job, as opposed to their criminal background.”