Despite Governor’s Push, Voting Rights for Felons Fails in Virginia

By: - February 12, 2013 12:00 am

Despite a strong push by the governor, nonviolent felons in Virginia who have completed their sentences must still seek a pardon from the governor to regain rights to vote and serve on a jury.

A House subcommittee on Monday (February 11) chose not to take up legislation approved by the Senate that would have amended the constitution to automatically restore those rights after nonviolent felons pay their debt to society. The decision effectively killed the bill’s chances to pass this year, disappointing Governor Bob McDonnell, who had made it one of his priorities.

Along with other backers of the legislation, McDonnell, a Republican, has argued the change would create a more efficient — and fair — process, while perhaps reducing the likelihood a person will commit another crime.

“It is the right thing to do,” McDonnell said Monday. “It is past time that Virginia enacted this policy. I believe strongly in second chances, redemption and opportunity.”

Others see racial injustice in the disenfranchisement of felons, because the issue disproportionately affects African Americans.

About one out of five African Americans of voting age in Virginia is barred from voting under the law, according to a study by the Sentencing Project, a group pushing for changes to the U.S. justice system. Nationally, the rate is about one in 13, the study said.  

In recent years, many states have made it easier for felons to regain their rights, either by repealing lifetime disenfranchisement laws, simplifying the application process or by requiring officials to provide information on the process.

In 38 states and the District of Columbia, most felons automatically gain the right to vote, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, though re-registering can still prove difficult and confusing. In Maine and Vermont, they never lose it — even while in prison.

Iowa and Florida are exceptions to the trend. In 2011, both states reversed policies that had automatically restored rights. Now, felons in both states typically wait years to regain them, if they do at all.

That’s the case in most states without automatic restoration. Pardons have become increasingly difficult to come by in most places, as Stateline has reported, and processes specifically set up for the purpose are often difficult to navigate.

McDonnell, however, has bucked that trend. His streamlined appeals process, launched in 2010, has restored rights to a record number of felons. He says his administration has responded to applications within 60 days.

But the fact that McDonnell’s office has occasionally denied applications had fueled criticism of his legislation, with opponents arguing each applicant should be considered individually.

Lawmakers in several other states are considering legislation on the issue. Last year, Delaware passed a bill  that would eliminate a five-year waiting period before felons regain their rights. The bill, which would amend the constitution, must again survive a legislative vote to become law.

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