Correction to This Article
A previous version of this article incorrectly said that Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) promised that his administration would expedite a review of applications to restore voting rights to nonviolent offenders. Kaine's deputy secretary of the commonwealth has said his office would do all it could to process the applications in time for approved felons to register to vote.

Groups Push to Restore Va. Felons' Voting Rights

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 17, 2008

RICHMOND -- Civic and social organizations are teaming with Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine to try to add thousands of nonviolent offenders to the voting rolls in time for the November election, a move that has angered Republicans who say the effort is designed to help Democratic Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign.

Under Virginia's constitution, people convicted of a felony automatically lose their right to vote for life, which has resulted in an estimated 300,000 residents being disenfranchised, even though they are not in prison.

But a Virginia governor can restore a felon's voting rights. Under a process set up by former governor Mark R. Warner (D) , felons convicted of nonviolent crimes can apply to have their voting rights restored if they have a clean record for three years after their sentence has been completed. People convicted of violent felonies, which in Virginia includes selling drugs, have to wait five years.

Earlier this year, Kaine (D) promised that his administration would expedite a review of applications from nonviolent felons who submit their papers by Aug. 1.

The former inmates would be able to register in time to vote in the November presidential contest between Obama (Ill.) and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the presumptive GOP nominee. The felons also would get their rights back to sit on a jury and hold public office.

"The whole name of the game is once they get out and once they serve their time and they have demonstrated they want to get into mainstream society and be good citizens, it's just fundamental to that, they have their civil rights restored," said Bernard Henderson, deputy secretary of the commonwealth, whose office is charged with processing the applications.

Only Virginia and Kentucky require an act of the governor to restore voting rights to felons. The vast majority of states, including Maryland, automatically restore voting rights after a sentence is completed. The District allows felons to vote upon release from prison. Maine and Vermont even allow felons to vote from jail.

The Kaine administration's efforts come as a coalition of groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP, have launched an ambitious drive to get convicted felons information on how they can apply to have their voting rights restored.

The groups have taken out newspaper ads, spread the word through churches and gone door to door, urging felons to apply to Kaine.

"A lot of felons operate under the miscomprehension that loss of their voting rights is permanent, so what we are doing, is saying, 'No, no, no, there is a way,' " said Gwinnett Hagens, executive director of Democracy South, a Virginia Beach social justice organization that is reaching out to tens of thousands of unregistered voters in Hampton Roads.

Henderson isn't sure how many applications to expect but said, "It is going to be a challenge for us if we get absolutely swamped, but we will divert staff to do this."

Kent Willis, executive director of the Virginia branch of the ACLU, and other activists say the campaign to register more felons is a civil rights issue, not a political one.

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