Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell has decided to take on the restoration of felon voting rights in his final year in office, pushing lawmakers in Richmond to take on the issue in Wednesday's State of the Commonwealth address.
"As a nation that believes in redemption and second chances, we must provide a clear path for willing individuals to be productive members of society once they have served their sentences and paid their fines and restitution," he said. "It is time for Virginia to join most of the other states and make the restoration of civil rights an automatic process for non-violent offenders."
Under current law, Virginia is one of four states that imposes significant burdens on felons wishing to regain civil rights, such as the right to vote. Currently felons must apply directly to the governor and have met certain qualifications. According to McDonnell’s office, he has restored rights to 4,423 felons, ostensibly a higher rate than any of his predecessors, but a recent study found that more than 350,000 former felons in Virginia still do not have voting rights.
Two Republican-backed bills have been filed for the coming legislative session that would give felons another path. One provides a new option only for nonviolent felons, while the other would make civil right restoration automatic for all felons upon completion of a full sentence and any payment of fines or costs.
Democrats, many of whom have long advocated for similar legislation, praised the McDonnell's declaration and some are suggesting that the law be named after the late State Sen. Yvonne Miller, the Commonwealth's first African-American woman to serve in the state house. Miller passed away last year after campaigning for the restoration of felon voting rights for 17 years.
The governor's backing increases the likelihood that some version of the bill will pass this year with bi-partisan support.
The Brennan Center for Justice praised the move:
We commend Governor Bob McDonnell for his support of automatically restoring the right to vote of individuals with past criminal convictions. This would move Virginia to the mainstream... Allowing Americans who have served their time to have a voice in their community will reap great benefits in terms of public safety and a more robust democracy. Governor McDonnell’s support for restoring rights complements his use of his clemency power to reintegrate these individuals back into our democracy.