Virginia's disgraceful move to discourage restoration of ex-cons' voting rights

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

AS A CANDIDATE last fall, Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell earned praise and reinforced his carefully nurtured image as a moderate by pledging to streamline the cumbersome process by which nonviolent former felons may regain their voting rights after completing their sentences. He insisted then, as he did as a lawmaker a decade ago, that ex-offenders who want their voting rights restored should not have to wait six months to a year for their applications to be reviewed, especially since they are not eligible to apply until three years after fulfilling their sentence.

We take the governor at his word. But his initial attempts to expedite the process have come with a fat asterisk that casts doubt on any claim to fairness and decency, let alone moderation: Mr. McDonnell is also requiring ex-offenders -- who have already paid their debt to society -- to pass what looks like a character test before they can cast a vote.

In 48 other states and the District of Columbia, voting rights for most felons are restored automatically once their sentence is fulfilled. Only Virginia and Kentucky insist that some sanctions last indefinitely -- until the state, in its infinite wisdom, grants what the U.S. Constitution regards as the inalienable right to vote. In the Old Dominion, the result is that huge numbers of people are disenfranchised. Although the powers that be in Richmond regard former felons with such contempt that they don't even bother counting them, voting rights advocates estimate that some 300,000 ex-cons in Virginia remain barred from voting. African Americans account for just a fifth of Virginia's 7.8 million citizens but are thought to constitute about half of those ineligible to vote. This is Jim Crow by another name.

Now Mr. McDonnell may be compounding the damage by insisting that nonviolent former felons -- people convicted of shoplifting and other property crimes, for instance -- must do more than just apply to the state if they wish to vote, a process that until now has been time-consuming but generally successful for those who stick with it. Mr. McDonnell would have them submit a letter making the case that they have contributed to society since their release -- an utterly arbitrary standard. What's more, they are asked to explain why they think they should get their rights back.

As we see it, the correct answer is: Because they are rights. Period. By insisting on this exercise in expository writing, Mr. McDonnell is transforming the process into a kind of literacy test -- as obnoxious in its own way as the literacy tests of Jim Crow, which were intended to exclude blacks from voting. Whatever the intent, the likely effect will be to dissuade thousands of people who might otherwise apply.

Just a week ago, Mr. McDonnell raised suspicions that he has, at best, a tin ear for racial issues when he intentionally omitted any mention of slavery from a proclamation on Confederate History Month, then attempted to justify that omission by saying, in effect, that slavery was a side issue in the Civil War as far as Virginia was concerned. That triggered a public relations debacle, and he apologized.

Now Mr. McDonnell says he wants to undo the terrible legacy of people being excluded from the voting booth. Stung by critics, officials in his administration are meeting with civil rights groups, as well as prisoners' and voting rights advocates, to formulate a better system. They say their intent in asking ex-felons to draft letters is simply to glean information that will speed things up. But Virginia's secretary of the commonwealth, Janet Polarek, who oversees the process, makes it sound as if the ex-offenders would be applicants vying for coveted positions at a selective college. The essays, she said, would allow the petitioners "to have their full stories heard."

We would forgive any Virginians who do not feel grateful for this patronizing offer. It should not require applications, essays or the approbation of condescending bureaucrats to restore the vote to people who have paid for their wrongdoing. It is a matter of equity and democratic fair play and should be treated accordingly.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company