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A Step Forward in Virginia on Restoring Voting Rights

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell joined a growing group of Republican politicians that support restoring voting rights to those who have served their time.

  • Vishal Agraharkar
January 11, 2013

Cross­pos­ted at Huff­ing­ton Post.

On Wednes­day, Virginia Gov. Bob McDon­nell used his annual State of the Common­wealth address to urge the legis­lature to reform Virgini­a’s voting rights restor­a­tion process. Virginia is one of only four states — along with Flor­ida, Iowa, and Kentucky — that continue to require those with past crim­inal convic­tions to person­ally apply to the governor to have their rights restored. McDon­nell proudly claims that his admin­is­tra­tion has restored the voting rights of more people than any previ­ous Virginia admin­is­tra­tion. He should be applauded for exhort­ing the legis­lature to auto­mate the process so that indi­vidu­als with crim­inal convic­tions in their past can actu­ally rein­teg­rate them­selves into our demo­cracy.

McDon­nell’s state­ments are conson­ant with views held by lead­ing law enforce­ment groups, faith-based groups, and schol­ars: Auto­matic voting rights restor­a­tion is a smart-on-crime reform that it is consist­ent with Amer­ican values and ideals. States that give persons with crim­inal convic­tions a second chance to become full-fledged stake­hold­ers in their communit­ies by auto­mat­ic­ally restor­ing their voting rights upon release see recidiv­ism rates that are 10 percent lower than perman­ent-disen­fran­chise­ment states.

The governor earned a stand­ing ovation for recog­niz­ing that a byzantine exec­ut­ive process for restor­ing voting rights is incon­sist­ent with great values of our coun­try like redemp­tion and second chances, and that Virgini­a’s current policy is grossly out of step with the rest of the coun­try. McDon­nell invoked reform that would restore rights to persons who have served their sentences, paid their fines and resti­tu­tion, and commit­ted nonvi­ol­ent offenses.

This would be a great step forward for a state with one of the nation’s most regress­ive laws, but the proposal does not go far enough because it would condi­tion voting rights restor­a­tion on having the money to pay finan­cial penal­ties. Instead, every person who is out of prison should be given a personal stake in their community and the accom­pa­ny­ing disin­cent­ive from reoffend­ing.

In using his annual address to call for auto­matic rights restor­a­tion, McDon­nell joins a group of other Repub­lican politi­cians who have recog­nized the funda­mental unfair­ness of making perman­ent second-class citizens out of fellow Amer­ic­ans who have made mistakes in their past. The late Jack Kemp advoc­ated against harsh felony disen­fran­chise­ment policies in several states. Former Flor­ida Gov. Charlie Crist made voting rights restor­a­tion a pet issue and signi­fic­antly eased the harshest felony disen­fran­chise­ment policies in the coun­try. Former Sen. Rick Santorum even made clear his support for voting rights restor­a­tion in a nation­ally-tele­vised 2012 Repub­lican primary debate.

Unfor­tu­nately, a minor­ity of Repub­lican admin­is­tra­tions have blocked and even reversed civil rights restor­a­tion efforts. When he took office in 2011, Flor­ida Gov. Rick Scott took a big step back­ward when his clem­ency board issued prob­ably the harshest voting rights restor­a­tion policy in the coun­try. Scott elim­in­ated former Gov. Crist’s reforms and required even nonvi­ol­ent offend­ers to wait five years after complet­ing all of the terms of their sentences before even being allowed to apply to have their rights restored.

Like­wise, Iowa Gov. Terry Bran­stad reversed a policy imple­men­ted in 2005 by then Gov. Tom Vilsack that fast-tracked the restor­a­tion of voting rights for persons with crim­inal convic­tions who had served all terms of their sentence. Iowa’s policy required payment of all outstand­ing fees and fines before an applic­a­tion could even be filed. The impact of the poli­cy’s reversal was profound. More than 100,000 persons had their voting rights restored between 2005 and 2011 under the governor­ships of Tom Vilsack and Chet Culver. By compar­ison, since 2011, although more than 13,000 persons have been released from the super­vi­sion of the state crim­inal justice system, fewer than 20 have success­fully applied to have their rights restored.

Last week, Bran­stad slightly eased Iowa’s policy by, among other things, allow­ing persons with past crim­inal convic­tions to apply to have their voting rights restored without under­go­ing a credit check, and after demon­strat­ing they are current on all payment of fines and resti­tu­tion. But Iowa’s new policy falls woefully short of the auto­matic voting rights restor­a­tion that was espoused by previ­ous admin­is­tra­tions, and that was proposed yester­day by McDon­nell.

The Virginia legis­lature should take its cue from the governor and pass legis­la­tion restor­ing voting rights to the more than 400,000 Virgini­ans with crim­inal convic­tions living and work­ing in their communit­ies.