Virginia Governor unveils plan to restore felon voting rights

File Photo: Felon Leroy Jones joins other demonstrators outside court in Miami, Wednesday, April 9, 2003, where the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments on whether the state is doing enough to help ex-felons restore their voting rights. ...
File Photo: Felon Leroy Jones joins other demonstrators outside court in Miami, Wednesday, April 9, 2003, where the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard...

Republican Governor Bob McDonnell will take a concrete step forward for voting rights Wednesday as he unveils a new plan to help nonviolent felons have their voting rights restored.

Currently, Virginia is one of only four states that do not automatically restore voting rights to felons once they've served their time, instead forcing felons to directly petition the Governor to have their rights restored after a two-year waiting period. Under the new McDonnell plan, the governor's office has nixed the waiting period and will instead notify nonviolent felons in a letter that their rights have been restored once the office has verified that he or she has served all time and paid all debts owed.

The change means thousands of nonviolent felons in Virginia could get their voting rights back in time to vote in the upcoming gubernatorial election, although it still puts the onus on the Governor's office to take action on each felon. Until now McDonnell could only take action on the applications his office had already received, a process considered too cumbersome.

"In many ways it's the culmination of a career of effort to fix this issue in Virginia," McDonnell's spokesman tells the Richmond Times Dispatch.

McDonnell has been a champion of felon voting rights since before he became governor and campaigned on the issue of rights restoration.

During his term, he approved applications at a higher rate than his predecessors, restoring voting rights for nearly 5,000 former felons—including some prominent ones like Scooter Libby. Unfortunately, that  heightened attention still barely made a dent in total number of former felons in Virginia who have yet to see their rights restored, estimated to be more than 350,000. In 2012, President Obama won Virginia by a margin of just over 100,000 votes.

Even under the new improved process, the administration will be able to restore rights only on an individual basis, which McDonnell's office says is the furthest action he's legally able to take. During his State of the Commonwealth address earlier this year he pressed lawmakers in the Republican-controlled state house to move forward with a constitutional amendment to provide a better solution for blanket restoration, but the legislation that followed his call to action ultimately failed.

Recent polling has found a majority of Virginians support restoration of voting rights for felons who've served their time.

"While today’s announcement represents a positive step forward, Virginia still needs a more permanent solution through a Constitutional amendment from the General Assembly to automatically restore civil rights for all citizens who have served their time," said Judith Browne-Dianis, co-director of the civil rights organization the Advancement Project. "We hope to build on this development in order to move Virginia fully toward America’s promise of a robust and inclusive democracy.”

McDonnell's new plan will not be binding for future governors, and so the decisions of his successor—whether Republican Ken Cuccinelli or Democrat Terry McAuliffe— will matter. Cuccinelli voiced his support for an improved process Tuesday.

"I believe we need a simpler way for individuals who want to return to their place in society to be given a second chance and regain their civil rights that were lost through a felony conviction," Cuccinelli said according to a Richmond Times Dispatch report.

McDonnell's announcement will draw praise from many voting right activists, many of whom have taken issue with his past action on voting issues. Earlier this year McDonnell signed his second piece of legislation designed to further restrict the forms of voter ID accepted in Virginia.