McDonnell spokesman says voting rights letter sent to felons 'without approval'

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 14, 2010; B01

RICHMOND -- Letters telling more than 200 felons in Virginia that they had to write a "personal letter to the Governor" to get their voting rights restored were sent in error, a spokesman for Gov. Robert F. McDonnell said Tuesday, adding that the potential requirement is merely a "draft policy proposal."

The letters sent to felons said that, "as a new requirement," nonviolent offenders must provide a "personal letter to the Governor explaining the circumstances of your arrest and conviction." They were also told to detail their efforts to get a job, seek education, and participate in church and community activities, and why they think their rights should be restored. The governor's letter went on to say that failure to do so would result in applications being closed "with prejudice."

"The letter was sent without approval by a well-meaning staffer attempting to continue to process requests even while new procedures were being considered," said McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin.

McDonnell (R) is revamping the system for felons to have their rights restored as he works to process every application within 90 days. Other governors have taken six to 12 months to process applications.

Martin said media outlets, including The Washington Post, were incorrect in reporting that the governor's office had decided to require the letters to the governor. "As this paper and other media outlets have been told, this remains a draft policy proposal. Nothing has changed," Martin said.

The Post reported that Secretary of the Commonwealth Janet Polarek and Deputy Secretary Christie Heath said in an interview last week that while McDonnell was still considering broader changes to the process for restoring voting rights, the decision had been made to require offenders to submit letters, adding that the state already had started mailing out the changes.

Heath said 213 nonviolent felons have applied to have their rights restored since McDonnell was sworn into office in January. Ninety-five percent of them had written letters to the governor by an April 1 deadline, Martin said Tuesday.

Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Richmond), who opposes the changes, said he was baffled as to why the governor's office was collecting letters from applicants if they were never going to use them.

"It raises an eyebrow,'' McEachin said. "If they're not going to use the essay, why have they written people and told them they're going to use the essays? It's starting to look like the gang that can't shoot straight."

The proposal was met with heavy criticism from Democrats, civil rights groups and those who work with felons to restore their rights. They said McDonnell's proposal would turn a nearly automatic process into a subjective one that may prevent poor, less-educated or minority residents from being allowed to vote.

Virginia would be the only state to require a letter for the restoration of civil rights, according to Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group.

Former Kentucky governor Ernie Fletcher (R) required a personal essay, but his Democratic successor Steve Beshear removed the requirement in 2008.

In 39 states, including Maryland, and the District, voting rights are automatically restored after a felon completes a prison sentence, probation or parole, Mauer said. In the remaining states, felons must petition a governor or board.

Polarek will meet with the ACLU, the NAACP and other groups that work with felons Wednesday to talk about changes the governor's office is making to the process.

"This is a rather odd way to make policy, but we're delighted if they're serious about dropping the requirement of a lengthy personal letter to the governor," said Kent Willis, executive director of the Virginia branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.

In Virginia, under a system designed by former governor Mark Warner (D), felons convicted of nonviolent crimes have been able to apply to have their voting rights restored by filling out a one-page form with information about their arrest and conviction.

"The Governor believes strongly in second chances and helping individuals regain their voting rights, and he is committed to instituting a restoring process that is the fastest and fairest in the modern history of Virginia,"' Martin said.

McDonnell has not restored any felon's rights since he was sworn into office Jan. 16, although applications have started to be processed.

Staff writer Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.

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