McDonnell in hot water over nonviolent felons' rights

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell.
Gov. Robert F. McDonnell. (Steve Helber/AP)
By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 11, 2010

RICHMOND -- For the second time in a week, Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell has angered black leaders and civil rights groups, this time when they learned of his plans to add another step for nonviolent felons to have their voting rights restored.

McDonnell (R) will require the offenders to submit an essay outlining their contributions to society since their release, turning a nearly automatic process into a subjective one that some say may prevent poor, less-educated or minority residents from being allowed to vote.

"It's another roadblock," Sen. Yvonne B. Miller (D-Norfolk), a member of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, said when she was told of the change.

Miller has repeatedly introduced unsuccessful bills to allow nonviolent offenders to have their rights restored automatically. "This is designed to suppress the rights of poor people," she said.

McDonnell faced a national firestorm last week after he declared that April will be Confederate History Month without including any reference to slavery. He was rebuked by President Obama and former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder -- the nation's first African American president and its first elected African American governor, respectively -- as well as a host of state leaders, including members of the black caucus.

McDonnell later apologized and amended the proclamation, but now some of the same people who were angry about it are questioning his changes to the process of restoring voting rights.

McDonnell's administration said the essay requirement is designed to put a human face on each applicant and to help staff members better understand each person's situation.

"It gives all applicants the opportunity to have their cases heard and have their full stories told," said Janet Polarek, secretary of the commonwealth, whose office handles the requests. "It's an opportunity, not an obstacle."

McDonnell is revamping the entire system for felons to have their rights restored as he works to make good on a campaign pledge to process every application within 90 days, considerably faster than any other administration in recent history.

"Under Republican and Democratic governors, they have had to wait six to 12 months -- longer in some cases -- to get an answer," Polarek said. "Under the McDonnell administration, our goal is to restore the rights of everyone who has fulfilled their obligation in the most timely manner in Virginia's recent history."

McDonnell has not restored any felon's rights since he was sworn into office Jan. 16, although applications have started to be processed. The new process is still being developed and is several weeks away from being implemented. Polarek said she does not know whether she will need more money or staff to read the essays or speed up the process.

Under Virginia's constitution, people convicted of a felony automatically lose the rights to vote, serve on a jury and own a gun. About 300,000 felons who have served their time do not have those rights. A governor can restore those rights to felons who appear to have redeemed themselves.

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