( – promoted by lowkell)
Today, Delegate Charniele Herring and other civic leaders held the second Restoration of Voting Rights forum in Alexandria. This was another one of what I expect to be many of such events taking place around the Commonwealth to promote restoration for people who have lost their voting rights in the past due to a felony conviction. Today’s speakers included:
Lenny Harris, President, Operation H.O.P.E.
Geoffrey Thomas, Alexandria Consortium Group
Jon Liss, Virginia New Majority
John Chapman, President, NAACP Alexandria Branch
Howard Woodson, Old Dominion Bar Association
Eddie Hailes, Advancement Project
We first had a discussion about the history of felon disenfranchisement (which was last established in 1902 with the expressed purpose of eliminating the black vote) and the importance of going through the restoration process. Delegate Herring talked about her bill, HJ 543, which would amend the Virginia Constitution to allow the General Assembly to set up a process for restoration of rights. Then, volunteers and applicants paired up to fill out their forms.
It is my hope that events like this will continue to occur throughout the state, so that we can increase awareness of the process for restoration. Eddie Hailes said that only an estimated 1% of Virginians with felony convictions apply to have their rights restored. While there will always be certain members of this group who have no interest in it, there are many who are either unaware of the process or who exclude themselves because they see it as too difficult (for people with violent or certain drug-related offenses, the application is 12 pages long).
Some readers of Blue Virginia are aware that, as a former felon, I went through the restoration process myself. After being denied by Governor Tim Kaine because of my traffic tickets in 2008, my application was approved by Governor Bob McDonnell last year.
I’m glad that Governor McDonnell has made the process easier and more efficient than it was under Kaine. I also think that he could make it even more efficient by eliminating the process (and the expense) of review by the Governor’s office and extra staff members assigned for that purpose.
Secondly, I’m concerned that the Governor’s office has reinstated a back-door “essay requirement,” something that was rescinded last year after public controversy. The current application says:
Please provide a brief description of community or comparable service or any other information you would like the Governor to know.
This sentence was followed by the parenthetical disclaimer, “Optional,” but just a few months ago that word was removed. View the old application here.
On a more positive note, I noticed another change to the applications in the past 9 months: in the requirement that applicants not have any misdemeanor charges within two years before applying, they have added the clause, “excluding traffic tickets.” True to their word, the McDonnell administration has codified their position that such tickets, which are not misdemeanors, would not prevent people from getting their voting rights restored.
The very fact that these requirements can be changed so arbitrarily is itself an argument for instating an automatic restoration process. I’m not advocating for specific guidelines. I only ask you this: if a person previously convicted of a felony has completed their sentence, paid all their fines, and been free of criminal convictions for a certain number of years, then why should there be any additional consideration as to whether their right to vote should be reinstated? Have they or have they not fulfilled the requirements of citizenship? If you can get a job, get married, get a drivers license, raise children and pay taxes, then I think you should be free to vote. Virginia should institute a process, as 48 other states do, whereby such citizens who meet the requirements are restored automatically without having to petition the Governor.
P.S. One of the most frequent arguments I hear from conservatives is that we should not even be discussing voting rights because of the more important issue of gun rights. According to these advocates, since gun rights are expressly enshrined in the Constitution, it is unconstitutional for gun rights to be removed for any reason, including felony convictions. By that logic, prisoners and people convicted of murder should be permitted to keep their guns but we should be very careful about reinstating their voting rights. No matter what you beliefs in this area, I think the discussion of gun rights should not sabotage the discussion about voting rights.