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If all goes according to plan, Gov. Bob McDonnell’s administration projects that over six months, it can restore voting rights to one in 10 eligible people who lost them to nonviolent felony convictions.
That bold undertaking, which could benefit 10,000 of an estimated 100,000 nonviolent felons who’ve completed their terms, is not without its challenges, though.
Chief among them is locating scores of Virginians who forfeited their rights to vote, a task complicated by a system of spotty electronic state records that go back only to 1995.
Because there is no comprehensive database, the state is counting on partner advocacy groups to help route people to them.
The governor announced details July 15 of the revamped rights restoration system he first heralded in late May as the closest Virginia can get to an automatic system under current law.
“Starting today, those who have served their time, paid all fines, costs, and restitution and met other court-ordered conditions, will be able to regain their voting and civil rights as quickly as possible through a process that is automatic and individualized,” McDonnell said in a statement.
The new system is based on the idea of uniform approval for those who qualify to regain the right to vote, seek and hold public office, serve on a jury or be a notary public.
It removes the two-year waiting period and formal application process previously in place for nonviolent felons; violent felons still must wait five years to apply.
The governor indicated that many statutory burglary and breaking-and-entering offenses would be considered nonviolent crimes for the purpose of restoration, though some that involved intent to cause bodily harm would be deemed violent offenses.
The pathway announced Monday is the fulfillment of a 2009 McDonnell campaign pledge to streamline the process in Virginia, a state that has been known for having some of the most restrictive restoration policies in the country.
Three years ago, the governor took an initial step in that direction, imposing a 60-day deadline for his staff to respond to applications. He also reduced the nonviolent felon waiting period from three to two years.
As a result, the 5,235 people who’ve regained civil rights under McDonnell eclipses the single-term record of any previous Virginia governor.
The latest restoration guidelines were developed over the past 45 days in consultation with advocacy groups, including many that favor automatic restoration. And Virginia is counting on some of those groups to help track down onetime felons who want to vote again.
People interested in regaining their rights can contact the state in writing by mail, fax or phone. Beginning Aug. 1, an online portal will be available at the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s website.
Virginia has a handle on people who are now in the criminal justice system and will keep tabs on those eligible for restoration going forward, including the roughly 500-700 people who complete their terms of sentencing every month, according to state officials.
To help speed things along, the state is assigning four additional employees to help with the workload and is investing $10,000 in technology upgrades to enhance record-sharing with the State Board of Elections.
McDonnell’s announcement Monday was hailed as a “great foundation for future administrations to build on” even though it doesn’t go as far as some had hoped, noted Tram Nguyen, associate director for Virginia New Majority, one of the stakeholders in the governor’s working group.
But more must be done, said Advancement Project co-director Judith Browne Dianis.
“While today marks a huge step forward in public policy, we hope it is only the first step toward full automatic rights restoration for the more than 350,000 Virginians who live, work, and pay taxes in our communities, yet have not had their rights restored,” she said, urging the General Assembly to amend the state constitution so rights restoration is universally automatic.
Black Democratic lawmakers have long pushed for that but have met repeated resistance, a pattern that played itself out again this year even after McDonnell and some fellow Republicans got behind the effort.