BY THROWING HIS support behind a measure to automatically restore voting rights to nonviolent felons, Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) is doing more than helping to end his state’s archaic practice of systematically disenfranchising thousands of people each year. He is also addressing what has become a patently racist distortion in Virginia’s democracy.
At a rough estimate, 350,000 Virginians — almost 6 percent of the overall voting-age population — are felons who have completed their sentences and paid their debt to society but remain forbidden to vote. That’s one of the highest rates in the nation, thanks to a regime that permanently and indiscriminately disenfranchises them — shoplifters and murderers; bad-check writers and burglars — unless the governor himself, acting on an individual’s petition, restores his or her rights. Just three other states (Florida, Kentucky and Iowa) enforce such a rule.
The burden is heavily skewed by race. One in five African Americans of voting age in Virginia, and a third or more of black men, cannot cast a ballot. That’s a profoundly undemocratic disgrace.
As a gubernatorial candidate in 2009, Mr. McDonnell, a former prosecutor and attorney general, promised to restore voting rights to more ex-offenders. He has done so, granting restoration petitions faster than any of his predecessors — some 4,400 to date, about three-quarters of them nonviolent. But even if Mr. McDonnell doubled or tripled the rate of restorations in his remaining year in office, Virginia would still have the nation’s third-largest disenfranchised population, after Florida and Texas.
To his credit, he wanted to do more, and he did so Wednesday by putting his weight behind a constitutional amendment that would automatically restore voting rights to felons convicted of nonviolent crimes who have served their time. “As a nation that believes in redemption and second chances,” the governor told lawmakers convening at the start of the General Assembly’s annual session, “we must provide a clear path for willing individuals to be productive members of society.”
For such an amendment to be enacted, legislation would have to pass the General Assembly in consecutive years, then be approved by voters at referendum; the earliest that could happen would be in the fall of next year. Even then, in a state that currently has no relevant database, it would be difficult to identify, find and notify tens of thousands of people that they may now vote. State officials should start compiling the data now from local clerks of the court, so that Mr. McDonnell’s vision can be carried out at the earliest possible date.
In line with the practice in most Western democracies, many states have moved toward quicker and easier restoration of voting rights, for violent as well as nonviolent ex-offenders. Much remains to be done. Nationally, some 5.8 million felons, nearly half of whom have completed their sentences, have been struck from the voting rolls. The trend toward automatic restoration is clear but incomplete.