YOU MIGHT NOT expect that Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) would have attracted controversy with his modest efforts to restore voting rights to ex-felons. More than 200,000 former offenders are disenfranchised in the commonwealth, where ex-felons are barred from voting for life unless the governor intervenes. Mr. Warner has restored the right to vote of only about 1,900 of them. Yet that has been enough for some Republicans in the General Assembly to cry foul. Last week Del. Bradley P. Marrs (R-Richmond) wrote a letter complaining that he was "very disturbed to learn of the breakneck pace" at which the governor is granting petitions and warned the governor not to make restoration automatic. "I believe the General Assembly would look askance at any efforts to bypass its policy-making authority on this point," he wrote.
Mr. Warner is not restoring voting rights as a matter of course once a convict has served his sentence; we wish he were. The governor deserves credit for taking his responsibility to consider these applications more seriously than his predecessors did. He has granted considerably more petitions than any other recent governor. He has also streamlined the process by which ex-felons can file those petitions, and he has moved to clear a disgraceful backlog that his predecessors allowed to build up. But the process remains, under Virginia's constitution, a matter of gubernatorial grace -- not a policy of restoring the vote to ex-felons as a routine part of welcoming them back into society. The real problem, in other words, is precisely the opposite of the one about which Mr. Marrs complains.
Virginia is one of seven states that permanently disenfranchise ex-felons; the others are Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi and Nebraska. Seven other states, including Maryland, have less far-reaching restrictions. The result, according to the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization that promotes alternatives to incarceration, is that about 1.7 million people nationally are denied the vote despite having paid their debts to society. Minorities are disproportionately represented. This is wrong, and it's bad policy to boot. Reintegrating former criminals into society is a hard task under the best of circumstances. It is all the harder when the stigma of a conviction lingers forever, undermining a person's citizenship and pushing him away from the community into which he is supposed to be reintegrating. With Americans preparing to elect a president, it is worth considering the message states send to those whom they exclude from this central event of democratic life: You are still and forever outside of the polity. It's exactly the wrong message, and it needs to change, in Virginia and elsewhere.