May 30, 2013

GOV. ROBERT F. McDonnell (R) nudged Virginia into the 21st century Wednesday by decreeing a new system to restore voting rights automatically to nonviolent felons who have paid their debt to society. The governor’s move is courageous and consequential: In time — more time than many would like — it should enfranchise tens of thousands of ex-convicts, most of whom would otherwise be frozen out of elections indefinitely.

Mr. McDonnell’s move does not solve the entire problem. It excludes those convicted of violent felonies, including some drug crimes. At least 40 percent of the estimated 300,000 to 400,000 felons, plus several thousand released from prison each year, will remain ineligible to vote unless they undergo a lengthy waiting period and submit a complex application. In practice, few do so.

Moreover, the state has managed to locate and identify only 26,000 nonviolent felons, a fraction of those who will be eligible to regain voting rights under the new policy. There are no funds dedicated to expanding that database. In practice, it could be years before many ex-cons regain the right to vote.

Still, Mr. McDonnell’s move represents an important shift. Virginia has been one of just four states where voting rights are not restored automatically upon a felon’s completion of prison time, parole or probation. Since more than half the state’s prison population is African American, the effect has been racially skewed, depriving perhaps a fifth of the state’s black population of the vote.

Mr. McDonnell, a former prosecutor who has long regarded that system as unfair, streamlined the restoration process in his first year in office. He has approved more applications to restore voting rights, about 4,800, than any of his predecessors. Yet he has been blocked by GOP lawmakers in the General Assembly from changing the provision in the state constitution that codified and sustained the current system, which requires a minimum two-year wait and an elaborate application process.

In devising the new policy, the governor resorted to an ingenious and lawyerly mechanism to scrap the two-year wait. By fiat, starting July 15, he is automatically restoring voting rights for nonviolent felons (if the state can find them), provided that they have served their sentences, paid all fines and court costs and face no pending felony charges. However, to satisfy the constitutional requirement for gubernatorial review, he says the restorations will take place “on an individualized basis.”

The new policy was rightly lauded by the NAACP and other civil rights groups. In explaining it, the governor’s logic was potent and impeccable. Ex-offenders, he said, deserve “a second chance, because we are a state and a nation of people who believe in redemption and restoration.” Yet if that’s the case, why limit automatic restoration to nonviolent felons? In particular, why exclude those convicted of some drug crimes?

The probable answer is that Mr. McDonnell is doing what’s politically possible for now. He deserves Virginians’ admiration for that. Pressure will remain on future governors to go further — to find disenfranchised felons and restore not only their voting rights but also Virginia’s democracy.