More Va. felons get rights restored

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 26, 2010

RICHMOND - Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell is on track to restore voting rights to more felons than either of his Democratic predecessors - a surprising development for a conservative Republican who served as a law-and-order attorney general.

He has won praise from African Americans and civil rights groups for scrapping plans to require essays as part of felons' applications and vowing instead to act on each case within 60 days.

His administration has approved 780 of 889 applicants - 88 percent, according to the Secretary of the Commonwealth of Virginia's Office, which handles the requests.

"It was pretty darn fast," said James Bailey, regional director of the Hampton Roads Missing Voter Project, which encourages felons to apply for restored rights. "I give him props for sticking to what he said he was going to do."

Bailey has helped 10 applicants get their rights restored since the state's revamped program went into effect in May, and he plans to hold a clinic this fall to encourage more to apply and to reassure those who might be worried that they have to write an essay.

Under Virginia's Constitution, residents convicted of a felony automatically lose the right to vote, serve on a jury or own a gun. The governor can restore voting rights to those who he thinks have redeemed themselves. About 300,000 felons in Virginia who have served their time have not had their rights restored.

A governor's restoration of voting rights is the first step in the process; restoring the rights of gun ownership and jury service is more complex.

McDonnell's Democratic predecessor, Timothy M. Kaine, restored the rights of a record 4,402 felons during his term. Before him, Democrat Mark R. Warner restored the rights of 3,486, while Republicans James S. Gilmore III and George Allen restored rights to 238 and 460 felons, respectively.

Republicans have often asserted that Democratic governors restore voting rights to more felons because they are more likely to vote for left-leaning politicians.

Mark Rozell, a political scientist at George Mason University, said the changes will not help the term-limited governor or his party politically and might even prompt complaints from conservatives. "Bob McDonnell is going against type," Rozell said. "It doesn't fit the image in people's heads."

In late May, McDonnell announced a revamped process, which included shaving the time nonviolent felons must wait to apply after serving their sentences from three years to two years.

Since then, his administration has restored rights to 585 of 641 applicants who were convicted of nonviolent felonies (91 percent) and 191 of 244 who were convicted of violent felonies (78 percent), according to the Secretary of the Commonwealth's Office. All actions were completed within 60 days of receiving the necessary paperwork from courts and other state agencies, McDonnell spokeswoman Stacey Johnson said.

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