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Virginia’s archaic system for restoring voting rights

HERE’S THE GOOD NEWS about civil rights for former felons in Virginia: True to his word, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell is restoring voting privileges to ex-inmates faster than his predecessors did. Now the bad news: With the exception of Florida, Virginia has the nation’s worst record when it comes to disenfranchising its citizens.

In this case, unfortunately, the bad news outweighs the good. Mr. McDonnell, a Republican former prosecutor and attorney general, is well aware that granting voting rights to more ex-offenders who have completed their sentences is an important step toward rebuilding their lives as responsible citizens. That’s why he made it a campaign promise and a priority of his administration, along with expanding job training, counseling and other important programs for former convicts.

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To date, the governor has granted more than 3,800 petitions from ex-felons seeking the return of their voting rights. That puts him on track, in his remaining 15 months in office, to exceed any former Virginia governor.

But the bottom line is that 352,000 people — almost 6 percent of Virginia’s voting-age population — were listed as disenfranchised in 2010, the year Mr. McDonnell came into office. By the time he leaves office, in early 2014, that number will probably have grown by at least 20,000. And his policies will barely have dented that record.

The reason is that Virginia, along with just three other states, retains an archaic, profoundly undemocratic system that requires ex-cons intent on voting to petition personally to the governor — a decision-making process favored by Russian czars in the 19th century. Barring that, those offenders — whether their felonies were violent or nonviolent, first-time offenses or not, involving a forged check or murder — will never be allowed to vote again in Virginia.

The petition itself is almost like a college application: Incredibly, three letters of reference, on top of a five-year wait following the fulfillment of sentence, are required for some categories of ex-offenders. Mr. McDonnell has streamlined and accelerated the application process, which used to take months and now takes weeks. He has approved the applications of nearly 90 percent of petitioners. But the absence of an automatic restoration process following release from prison or fulfillment of sentence — at least for nonviolent offenders, as is the case in a large majority of states — is a disgrace.

It’s also racially skewed. Because African Americans and other minorities are overrepresented in prison populations, they are disproportionately disenfranchised in Virginia and other states where voting rights are not restored promptly, universally or automatically. In Virginia, more than 1 in 5 African Americans is disenfranchised, according to the Sentencing Project.

Society has an overarching interest in encouraging former felons to rebuild lives guided by personal responsibility. They are expected to find jobs, pay taxes and care for their children. It makes no sense to set those expectations while simultaneously withholding a basic right of citizenship for people who have paid their debt to society.

Mr. McDonnell cannot change Virginia’s system unilaterally. However, he has so far kept silent on legislation to get the ball rolling. He faces a choice between reforming the system or tinkering with the numbers. So far he has chosen to tinker.

 
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