May 28, 2013

VIRGINIA GOV. Robert F. McDonnell took office admirably determined to change a scandalously antiquated system by which the state has deprived several hundred thousand felons of their voting rights — permanently. To his credit, he’s done a better job than any of his predecessors at restoring the vote for former offenders who have served their sentences.

But measured against the problem, the governor’s efforts have amounted to little. Given that more than half of the state’s prison population is African American, the result is a stain on the state’s democracy.

The essential problem is a provision in the state’s constitution, reaffirmed by racist lawmakers more than a century ago, that deprives felons of the vote unless their rights are individually restored by the governor. Only three other states are so punitive; in the vast majority of states, voting rights are restored automatically once offenders have paid their debt to society.

Mr. McDonnell (R) has supported a change in the constitution, and so has the state Senate. But they’ve been blocked by Republicans in the House of Delegates, who may fear an infusion of African American voters.

In the absence of a constitutional change, Mr. McDonnell streamlined and accelerated the review of applications from ex-offenders and has restored voting rights to about 1,500 people each year, more than 80 percent of those who have applied. But each year 11,500 people are released from Virginia prisons, and an equal number of new convicts are incarcerated each year.

The result is that more than 7 percent of the state’s voting-age population is ineligible to vote, even though most of them have already served their sentences. The racial imbalance is appalling. Twenty percent of the state’s voting-age population of African Americans, and about a third of its black males, is ineligible to vote, according to the Sentencing Project, a voting rights organization.

It is obviously in society’s interest to encourage felons, black and white, to rebuild lives guided by personal responsibility — to find jobs, pay taxes and care for their children. What sense does it make to set those expectations while, at the same time, denying the most basic right of citizenship to people who have already been punished?

A new report commissioned by Attorney General KenCuccinelli II (R) concludes that, in the absence of a constitutional amendment, the state’s options for restoring voting rights appear limited. However, the report seems to leave open the door to creative solutions by which the governor could exercise his clemency power “in a more expansive manner” to restore voting rights.

We hope Mr. McDonnell interprets that language broadly. Why not, for instance, include applications to regain voting rights as part of release papers from prison, or upon completion of terms of parole for all ex-cons? That could satisfy the constitutional requirement that the governor review such applications individually, while ensuring that thousands of people are not permanently disenfranchised each year by default.