July 15, 2013

IN MAY, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell did an important, courageous and unexpected (for a Virginia Republican) thing by ordering a new system through which voting rights would be restored more or less automatically for nonviolent felons who have paid their debt to society. But Mr. McDonnell has yet to put his money where his mouth is.

If he does not, the re-enfranchisement of some 100,000 people, many of whom finished serving their sentences a decade ago or longer, would remain mostly notional.

For now, there is little money, and little progress, toward ensuring that nonviolent ex-cons regain their basic civil rights. The excuse is that Mr. McDonnell’s decision came too late in the budget cycle; to establish a database of ex-cons and to vet the data to determine which ones are alive and eligible to vote under the criteria the governor announced — well, the state just doesn’t have the resources.

What about the budget surplus that Mr. McDonnell’s office has been trumpeting?

In fact, state officials ran a test this year based on data they collected on approximately 20,000 felons who completed their sentences in 2008. The test cost little, involved only a handful of state employees and took just 10 weeks. In the end, 1,200 ex-cons were identified as potentially eligible for immediate restitution of their rights.

As government projects go, that’s a spectacular return on investment. Yet Mr. McDonnell has not authorized funds to repeat the exercise for other years — even though the project would be finite since electronic records do not exist before 1995. Without finding the money, Mr. McDonnell will have blunted the effect of his own initiative.

Admittedly, he has done much more than any of his predecessors; for that, he deserves enormous credit. The governor has restored the vote to 5,000 or so ex-cons during his term; as a result of his executive order, another 10,000 or so may regain the vote before he leaves office in January. In the future, more than 6,000 felons annually will have their voting rights automatically restored upon completion of their sentences. That’s the way it works in most other states; now it will in Virginia, too.

Yet what of the 100,000 nonviolent ex-cons from years past who the state estimates would be eligible to regain the vote right now? Aside from the 1,200 culled from 2008, officials are mainly relying on advocacy groups to identify others; they have identified only a few hundred so far. (Ex-cons who committed offenses classified as violent, which include many drug crimes, will still have to wait years and jump through elaborate hoops to be able to vote.)

It will be up to Mr. McDonnell to fund his initiative in the budget he prepares this fall, and up to his fellow Republicans to approve the outlay. Few of them are enthusiastic at the prospect of re-enfranchising ex-cons, a disproportionate number of whom are African Americans — read: Democrats. The follow-through on Mr. McDonnell’s vision will say a lot about Virginia’s fealty to fundamental democratic rights, and to its commitment to encouraging former criminals to re-establish themselves as full members of society.