McDonnell plan: Process to restore voting rights to be sped up
By Julian Walker | The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot
Ex-felons who have fully paid their debt to society and properly submitted an application to regain voting rights will receive a decision on their request within two months, instead of the current response time of six months or more, under a plan Gov. Bob McDonnell announced today.
And they won't be required to write a separate letter to the state detailing the personal actions they've taken to turn their life around. When McDonnell's administration weighed the idea of a letter recently, the proposal drew protests from civil-rights and voter advocates -- they likened it to literacy tests of old intended to bar minority voters from the polls.
McDonnell also announced that the waiting period for nonviolent offenders to apply will be reduced.
For violent felons and those convicted of drug offenses, the application process will remain much as it is now. Among the requirements are a letter from the applicant, three reference letters and a five-year waiting period.
Restoration laws vary from state to state, but Virginia and Kentucky are generally viewed as having the most restrictive rules in the land because a pardon is required to regain the ability to vote, whereas the process is more automatic in many other states.
McDonnell aides reject that characterization of Virginia's process, while asserting that their changes will improve the system.
They note that the expedited process they've proposed could result in ex-felons earning back their rights more quickly than their counterparts in some states that have so-called automatic restoration policies.
McDonnell's plan also shortens the amount of time all felons whose applications are rejected must wait to re-apply.
The goal is to increase access to the system, said Commonwealth Secretary Janet Polarek, who explained that the enhanced restoration process is intended to work in tandem with the governor's recently announced prisoner re-entry initiative.
It's an idea McDonnell, a former Virginia Beach prosecutor and past attorney general, has championed for at least 10 years going back to when he supported a 2000 law change that established a system to notify ex-felons they'd forfeited their rights and advise them how to apply to get them back, Polarek added.
Her office will spearhead "an aggressive approach" to reviewing applications and contacting by letter, telephone and e-mail those who submit incomplete applications. Polarek said that's different from previous administrations, which had a more "laissez faire" attitude about following up with people who submitted partially completed forms.
Under the revised process, restoration applications also may be submitted electronically.
And McDonnell will appoint a working group featuring officials from his administration; community leaders; and representatives from the State Police, Corrections Department, Department of Motor Vehicle and clerks of court to work out any kinks in the new system.
Polarek said that McDonnell has the authority to make many of the proposed changes, but she didn't rule out legislation if necessary.