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Virginia’s Step Forward On Voting Rights

Gov. McDonnell recently announced that VA is taking a first step in restoring voting rights to people with criminal convictions in their pasts. According to McDonnell, this will restore the right to vote to over 100,000 people. But we can go further.

  • Carson Whitelemons
June 11, 2013

(Photo: Gov. Bob McDon­nell)

Repub­lican Gov. Bob McDon­nell announced on May 29 that Virginia is taking a welcome first step in restor­ing voting rights to people with crim­inal convic­tions in their pasts. McDon­nell’s actions, which have an enact­ment date of July 15, amend the current law and auto­mate the restor­a­tion of rights process for non-viol­ent felons who meet specific criteria. Previ­ously, persons with past crim­inal convic­tions had to wait at least two years before even apply­ing to have their voting rights restored. Accord­ing to the Governor, his actions will restore the right to vote to over 100,000 people, a moment­ous change in a state whose policies have long been far outside of the main­stream. But we can go further. In Virginia and else­where, we must ensure that people with past crim­inal convic­tions who live and work in their communit­ies are empowered to parti­cip­ate in our demo­cracy.

Virginia was one of only four states in the nation to perman­ently disen­fran­chise those with past crim­inal convic­tions unless they indi­vidu­ally applied to the governor to have their rights restored. McDon­nell’s policy moves us closer to our ideal of a robust, parti­cip­at­ory demo­cracy; it also enhances public safety by giving persons with crim­inal convic­tions a second chance to become full-fledged stake­hold­ers in their communit­ies. McDon­nell acted in accord with lead­ing law enforce­ment groups, faith-based groups, and the major­ity of the Virginia public when he changed Virgini­a’s outdated policy.

And Virginia does not stand alone: other states are also making posit­ive steps forward in fully rein­teg­rat­ing people with past crim­inal convic­tions into our demo­cracy. In Delaware, the legis­lature amended the state consti­tu­tion to elim­in­ate a five year wait­ing period hamper­ing the voting rights of persons with past crim­inal convic­tions. Governor Bran­stad also recently some­what stream­lined Iowa’s applic­a­tion process for those who wish to have their rights restored – though it still remains oner­ous. All of these are import­ant improve­ments to the patch­work of laws across the coun­try that deny the right to vote to over 4.4 million people living and work­ing in our communit­ies.

But we can do more. McDon­nell’s actions, while commend­able, could be changed at the whim of the next governor. Even if McDon­nell’s actions stand, there are hundreds of thou­sands of people with crim­inal convic­tions in Virginia that still would not have the right to vote. We cannot continue to predic­ate voting rights restor­a­tion on the full payment of fines and court fees, or limit­ing the kind of offenses that are eligible; it deprives Amer­ic­ans with mistakes in their pasts a chance to parti­cip­ate in our demo­cracy as free citizens. Auto­matic rights restor­a­tion upon release from prison would simplify the restor­a­tion process and ensure that every­one is given a stake in our communit­ies.

Photo credit: Flickr/Polit­icalActiv­