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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.