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In one bold stroke, Gov. Bob McDonnell removes voting rights barriers for nonviolent offenders who have paid their debt to society.
Monday, June 3, 2013
Gov. Bob McDonnell took an extraordinary step last week when he announced that his administration will create an automatic process for restoring voting rights to nonviolent felons who have fulfilled their sentencing, probation and restitution obligations.
Before his announcement last Wednesday, McDonnell already had restored rights to more individuals than any of his predecessors and vastly improved a cumbersome process that is a shameful vestige of Jim Crow-era disenfranchisement. Shortly after taking office, the governor imposed a 60-day deadline for his administration to act on petitions from Virginians seeking to regain their rights. About 90 percent of the requests from nonviolent offenders have been approved.
Now McDonnell has decided to use his executive authority to make the process automatic, enabling tens of thousands of Virginians to regain their right to vote, serve on a jury, seek public office or serve as a notary public without having to petition the governor. The governor also will eliminate a two-year waiting period for eligibility. McDonnell did some intricate lawyering to satisfy a state constitutional requirement for gubernatorial review, saying the administration still will restore rights on “an individualized basis.”
The change does not apply to those convicted of violent crimes, who must petition the governor after a five-year waiting period to regain their rights. And McDonnell’s administration faces the logistical challenge of locating nonviolent offenders who meet eligibility requirements but have not applied to have their rights restored. The administration will work with stakeholder groups to make the transition as seamless as possible before the policy takes effect on July 15.
McDonnell went about as far as Virginia’s law allows toward automatically restoring rights for nonviolent offenders. The House of Delegates has repeatedly bottled up constitutional amendments that would remove all subjectivity from the process and take it out of the governor’s hands. McDonnell himself has urged lawmakers to approve such an amendment, recognizing that fundamental civil rights should not be subject to an executive’s whim.
But McDonnell put down an important historical marker last week. Though his action does not bind future administrations, his successors won’t be able to retreat from this landmark policy shift without inviting the wrath of Virginians and the scorn of a watchful nation. Both major party candidates for governor have voiced support for an expedited rights restoration process. And we can hope McDonnell’s bold stroke will create more momentum for a long-overdue constitutional change.
As McDonnell said last week: “America is a land of opportunity and second chances; a land where we cherish and protect our constitutional rights. For those who have fully paid their debt for their crimes, they deserve a second chance to fully rejoin society and exercise their civil and constitutional rights.”
Well said, governor. And, in this case, your actions speak louder and more powerfully than any words.
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