(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leading law enforcement groups, faith-based groups, and the majority of the Virginia public when he changed Virginia’s outdated policy.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/PoliticalActivityLaw.com