AS A candidate last spring, Gov. Terry McAuliffe promised to overhaul Virginia’s highly restrictive rules so that nonviolent felons would have voting and other civil rights restored, provided they had served their sentences and paid their debt to society. A month later, then-Gov. Robert F. McDonnell beat him to the punch by ordering just such a reform, which went a long way toward fulfilling a campaign promise of his own. At last, Virginia is making meaningful progress toward enabling felons to reestablish themselves as full members of society.
Still, neither Mr. McAuliffe, a Democrat, nor Mr. McDonnell, a Republican, is satisfied, and with good reason. Both men have supported a state constitutional amendment that would restore voting rights to ex-cons automatically upon the completion of their sentences. Republicans in the General Assembly have blocked it.
Enormous credit is due to Mr. McDonnell for pushing this initiative in the face of indifference and hostility from GOP back-benchers. Since most felons are black, the effect of restoring the vote to tens of thousands of them is akin to a voter registration drive that likely would mainly benefit Democratic candidates.
Still, Mr. McDonnell, a former prosecutor, had the decency to know that society is better served by fully integrating offenders upon the completion of their sentence. Virginia is one of just a handful of states that, in effect, permanently stigmatized such citizens with a policy that barred them indefinitely from voting, holding public office and serving on juries or as notaries.
The result has been mass disenfranchisement. According to the Advancement Project, an advocacy group, nearly 7 percent of Virginia’s voting-age population has been disqualified from voting, including, incredibly, one in five African Americans.
By speeding up rights restoration for nonviolent felons early in his term, then last year making it all but automatic, Mr. McDonnell ensured that more than 8,000 citizens regained their voting privileges — nearly twice as many as did any previous governor. And in future years, some 6,000 felons annually will have their rights restored automatically according to the regimen Mr. McDonnell established. Yet without incorporating that regimen into the state’s constitution, another governor could reverse the reforms.
What’s more, Virginia still lacks the resources to restore the rights of some 100,000 nonviolent felons who have already finished their sentences; in many cases, owing to the absence of any comprehensive database, it cannot even locate them. Mindful of that problem, Mr. McDonnell included more than $400,000 to improve restoration procedures. It is not clear whether that’s enough to make a dent in tracking down and notifying eligible felons.
As an experiment, last year state officials cross-checked about 20,000 people who completed their sentences in 2008; about 1,200 of them were deemed eligible to have their rights restored immediately. Then the money ran out and the project was dropped, even though electronic records are available going back to 1995.
Mr. McAuliffe must pick up where Mr. McDonnell left off. Without adequate funding and attention, the effort to restore rights for former criminals and encourage them to fully rejoin communities and build constructive lives will be incomplete.