Virginia Continues to Expand Voting Rights for Ex-Felons

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[Image courtesy of colorlines]

Last year, I wrote about the efforts of outgoing Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell to ease the Commonwealth’s rules for restring the voting rights for ex-felons.

Last Friday, Virginia’s new Governor Terry McAuliffe continued those efforts with significant changes to the rights restoration process. The Associated Press has more:

Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced policy changes [today] that will make it easier for violent felons and drug offenders to regain their voting rights.

The waiting period for violent felons to apply for restoration of rights has been reduced to three years from five, the governor said. He also has removed drug offenses from the list of violent crimes that are subject to the waiting period. Virginians convicted of felony drug crimes will now be considered nonviolent offenders, allowing them to regain their rights immediately after completing their prison time and paying any court-imposed costs.

Also, the secretary of the commonwealth will compile a list clarifying which offenses require a waiting period before an offender can apply to regain the rights to vote, to hold political office and to serve on a jury.

Virginia’s system of rights restoration is heavily dependent on executive action – a fact that both the former and current governor have seized upon as an opportunity to take action to ease the process:

In Virginia, only the governor can restore felons’ voting rights. Former Gov. Bob McDonnell streamlined the process and restored the civil rights of more than 8,000 felons, nearly twice as many as any previous administration.

McAuliffe’s revisions build on that effort. He said his administration already has restored the rights of more than 800 Virginians in his first three months in office.

Gov. McAuliffe’s actions are likely to rekindle an effort to change the system via legislation – a push so far resisted by the state legislature:

The General Assembly has repeatedly rejected proposals to amend the constitution to allow immediate and automatic restoration of all felons’ civil rights. Supporters of automatic restoration said they will keep trying.

“We believe that once an individual has served their time and fully paid their debt to society, they should have their civil rights restored without any additional burdens or punishments,” said Tram Nguyen, co-executive director of Virginia New Majority.

The process will still depend on solid data about which former offenders are eligible – data which as late as last fall was spotty – but it’s encouraging to see bipartisan support in Virginia for at least some changes in the way in which ex-offenders can reclaim their voting rights.

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