Virginia lags in restoration of felons' civic rights
A 2008 study found that 19 states have reformed their disenfranchisement laws in an effort to expand voter eligibility.
By Laurence Hammack
More than 3,500 people with felony convictions in their pasts, but hopes for civic involvement in their futures, have had their voting rights restored by Gov. Tim Kaine.
As of Sept. 1, Kaine had restored the rights of 3,598 convicted felons -- more than any other Virginia governor since at least 1938.
The governor's philosophy is to reward convicted felons who have led crime-free lives since completing their prison terms or probation, Kaine spokesman Gordon Hickey said.
"They've paid their debt, they've served their sentence, they've been clear of any problems with the law ... and they should be allowed to have their rights restored," Hickey said.
Yet critics say Virginia remains one of the most restrictive states in the nation when it comes to giving back basic rights that are forfeited with a felony conviction.
Virginia and Kentucky are the only two states that bar felons for life from voting, serving on a jury, running for public office or being a notary public, absent intervention from the governor, according to the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization that promotes criminal justice reform.
At least 300,000 felons are currently disenfranchised in Virginia, even though many have completed their sentences.
"The most fundamental expression of democracy -- the right to vote -- is marred in our state's constitution by legalized, permanent disenfranchisement," said Paige Hodges, a grant writer for Total Action Against Poverty who is helping organize a rally Sunday in Roanoke to draw attention to the issue.
"Ex-offenders are expected to re-integrate, pay taxes and become law-abiding citizens, but are prevented from helping to create the laws they must obey," Hodges said.
Convicted felons in Virginia who want their rights back must petition the governor in what can be a lengthy process. Once they are out of prison and off probation, there's a waiting period of three years for nonviolent offenders and five years for violent offenders and drug dealers.
Although the governor has the power to restore most civil rights, felons still are prohibited from owning a gun. Once someone has his other rights restored by the governor, he can ask a circuit court judge for permission to have a gun.
Restoring the rights of felons is left to the sole discretion of the governor, and the number of such actions has varied widely from administration to administration.
With three months remaining in office, Kaine recently surpassed former Gov. Mark Warner's total of 3,486, which had been the most since 1938, the first year for which records were available.
After he was elected in 2001, Warner streamlined the process for nonviolent felons, shortening the application from 13 pages to one. The change fulfilled a campaign promise from Warner to make it easier for people with a criminal past to have a productive future.
Since then, Warner and Kaine have granted more restoration-of-rights petitions than the previous 11 administrations combined.
While advocates for the disenfranchised are encouraged by the relatively high number of restorations by Warner and Kaine, they argue that the system remains too cumbersome.
It takes at least six months to conduct criminal background checks and complete the paperwork for each case. That means if everyone who is eligible were to apply, it would take more than 200 years to process all the applications, according to a study by the Advancement Project, a policy and legal action group committed to racial justice.
Paid in full
Unlike Virginia, most states automatically restore the rights of convicted felons after they have pulled their time, completed their probation and paid their court fines.
A study last year by the Sentencing Project found that 19 states have reformed their disenfranchisement laws since 1997 in an effort to expand voter eligibility.
Still, an estimated 5 million people were not allowed to vote in last year's presidential election because of a felony conviction, the study found.
Depriving convicted felons of their right to vote affects blacks disproportionately, according to critics who trace the origin of the system back to the days of Jim Crow.
When disenfranchisement laws were made a part of the state's constitution in 1902, a least one delegate to the convention made it clear what the true intent was, according to a report from the Advancement Project.
"This plan will eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this state in less than five years, so that in no single county ... will there be the least concern felt for the complete supremacy of the white race in the affairs of government," the report quoted Del. Carter Glass as saying at the time.
About half of the convicted felons barred from voting in Virginia are black, according to the report, even though blacks constitute less than 20 percent of the state's voting-age population.
"It's a Jim Crow-era law that has no business being in our constitution," said Hodges, who is working to organize the "Voices for the Vote" rally in Elmwood Park.
The event will push to change Virginia's system and spread the word to convicted felons who may be eligible to have their rights restored.
Many convicted felons don't even know the process exists, said Sharon LaMar, head of the Roanoke chapter of the Virginia Organizing Project, another group sponsoring the rally.
Restoring felons' voting rights makes them more involved in their communities, and that in turn reduces the chances of recidivism, advocates say.
Yet not everyone supports the national trend of making it easier for ex-inmates to vote.
"There are places in this country, and maybe in parts of Virginia, where there are an awful lot of felons who could potentially make up five percent of the voters in a county and influence the outcome of an election," said Michael Rushford, president of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a tough-on-crime organization based in California.
"I wouldn't want sex offenders to have a voting bloc, to be able to choose someone for public office who's sympathetic to their cause," Rushford said.
The process of restoring rights to felons can sometimes become a political issue, as it did during last year's presidential election. Republican John McCain's campaign accused Kaine of making a coordinated effort of adding felons to the state's voter rolls so they could vote for Democrat Barack Obama.
Kaine's campaign dismissed claims that it was participating in a "conspiracy" with Obama.
For some, the most troubling aspect of the controversy was the notion that a vote from anyone with a felony in their past somehow corrupted the democratic process.
"That's insane," LaMar said. Once someone has completed their sentence and become a productive member of society, she said, "you should have the right to have your voice heard."