VIRGINIA IS MOVING quickly, though not quickly enough, to join the vast majority of states that quickly restore the voting rights of most felons after they have finished their sentences. On Friday, Gov. Terry McAuliffe, building on his predecessor’s policy, sharply expanded the numbers of nonviolent former convicts who will be re-enfranchised when they have paid their debt to society. He also shortened the wait for former convicts who committed violent crimes to three years from five.
Compared to the status quo in Virginia of just a few years ago, this represents enormous progress. Before former governor Robert F. McDonnell, a Republican, took office in 2010, ex-convicts who wanted to regain their civil rights had to petition the governor and, in many cases, wait years — a system so antiquated that it resembled prisoners begging the czar for pardons in 19th-century Russia.
Given that the prison population in Virginia is heavily and disproportionately African American, it was also deeply racist. More than half the state’s inmates and ex-cons are black, and the effect was — and continues to be — to rob about a fifth of the state’s black population of their voting rights. The proportion of black males so deprived is even higher.
Before Mr. McDonnell ordered changes, recent governors restored voting rights to scarcely more than 1,000 or so inmates annually. At a rough estimate, that gradually gave rise to a population of 350,000 felons who were permanently disenfranchised.
Mr. McDonnell, a former prosecutor who believed in second chances, rehabilitation and redemption for ex-offenders, speeded up the rate of rights restoration and, last year, modified the rules so that more than 6,000nonviolent felons would be eligible annually to regain their rights. (In addition to voting, those rights include jury service.)
Now Mr. McAuliffe, a Democrat, has gone further. By ordering that those previously convicted for selling drugs be classified as nonviolent, he expanded the pool of those eligible to regain their voting rights immediately by at least 1,350 ex-offenders annually. That is a logical and important move.
Mr. McAuliffe’s order, which fulfilled a campaign promise, further shifts Virginia toward the mainstream of Western democracies and of other states. Most states automatically restore civil rights for felons, and a few allow voting even for prisoners still serving their time.
In Virginia, thanks to the work of racist lawmakers a century ago, a constitutional amendment forbids completely automatic restoration of rights for all former prisoners; the governor must still approve those eligible. But both Mr. McDonnell and Mr. McAuliffe have gradually found work-arounds to that archaic amendment, which Republican lawmakers today refuse to repeal.
Much more can be done. Prisoners finishing their sentences now will regain their rights, but what of those who served their time in the past? At least 100,000 of them committed nonviolent crimes and should be immediately eligible to vote. But the state has devoted no extra money or resources to tracking them down. Mr. McDonnell proposed adding a single clerk to the rolls of state employees to help do just that; Republican lawmakers struck it from his budget.