In the restoration of rights letter from Secretary of the Commonwealth Janet Polarek, one sentence stood out:
Governor McDonnell and I extend our congratulations to you for this achievement and welcome your full and enthusiastic participation in your locality, the Commonwealth of Virginia and the United States.
Since I believe restoration of rights should be automatic, I don’t consider it an achievement. Instead, I congratulate Governor McDonnell for taking steps in the right direction. As Governor, McDonnell has already outperformed his Democratic predecessor Tim Kaine on this issue (with the exception of the sheer number of people restored, which the administration could easily surpass by 2013). He has shortened waiting periods to apply and re-apply, he has processed applications in less than sixty days, and it looks like he has ended Kaine’s practice of denying people just for having traffic tickets.
After McDonnell’s proposal to require an essay from rights-restoration applicants was met with such criticism, he saw the error in this and responded by making the process easier than it was under Kaine. In contrast, when Kaine was criticized for his inaction on the issue, he responded first by claiming he had no power to change an arbitrary policy, then by patting himself on the back and inserting this line into his final State of the Commonwealth Address:
We have restored more individuals’ voting rights than any previous Administration.
This claim appears once again in Chairman Kaine’s bio on the DNC website.
You never know when political pressure, positive or negative, will have an effect. Voting rights advocates had been applying positive pressure on Kaine, encouraging him to issue an Executive Order restoring rights to at least a subset of the 300,000 disenfranchised ex-felons in Virginia. They showed him that he had the full authority to do so and that there was precedent, and they showed him exactly how it could be done. It wasn’t until the waning days of Kaine’s term that all other options had been exhausted and they started applying the negative pressure. The end result was for Kaine to congratulate himself for restoring 1% of the disenfranchised.
Similar efforts were made to persuade then-Governor Mark Warner to change the policy. He didn’t restore quite as many as Kaine, but in my opinion he did more than his successor by implementing the simpler, two-page Application for Restoration of Rights for nonviolent felons.
It is assumed that no politician takes any action without first considering the political implications. I think Kaine’s refusal to act was the result of some kind of political calculus (or, rather, cowardice), although I don’t see what he would’ve had to lose. The net gain for bringing Virginia into the 21st Century would have been positive and besides, it is very unlikely that it would’ve hurt him if he decided to run for office again. (It’s also unlikely that Kaine would run for anything – how many national party chairs besides George H.W. Bush have gone on to elected office afterwards?)
If ever there were an occasion for Governor McDonnell to deny a restoration of rights applicant for political reasons, my case would be one. I actively campaigned against him and even publicly protested McDonnell earlier this year when he announced Confederate History Month. But I asked here on Blue Virginia about a month ago, Will I have reason to thank Gov. McDonnell? It looks like I do. I thank the Governor and I encourage him to take further steps to make Virginia a place where the rights and requirements of citizenship are restored and fulfilled when the debt to society is paid.