ACLU urges McDonnell to act on ex-felon voting rights
“Gov. McDonnell continues to send out the most positive messages on restoration of voting rights of any Virginia governor in recent memory, and he should be praised for streamlining the restoration process,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “But he, not the General Assembly, has the authority to initiate immediate reforms.”
The governor is quoted as saying he will work with the General Assembly “to put together some structure for automatic restoration, particularly for some non-violent felons.”
“Under the Virginia Constitution, the governor, not the General Assembly, has control over the process for restoring voting rights of felons,” added Willis. “Every legal expert who has looked at this issue in Virginia has concluded that the governor has the authority to institute reforms. Furthermore, the General Assembly only has the power to amend the Constitution if it wants to make changes, a lengthy process that takes two separate legislative sessions and a referendum of Virginia voters.”
“In the same way that the governor changed the application process when he took office and promised to restore voting rights within 60 days for non-violent felons,” continued Willis, “he has the power to automatically restore voting rights for every single non-violent felon in Virginia.”
“If this is what the governor wants, then he should just do it,” added Willis. “He should also start the ball rolling to amend the Virginia Constitution, but that’s a three-year process that will be unfinished and still subject to multiple political variables when he leaves office.”
The ACLU of Virginia, along with scores of ministers, faith-based groups, the NAACP and numerous other state and local organizations have pressed for reform of Virginia’s felon disenfranchisement law. In most states, the right to vote is automatically restored once felons, especially non-violent felons, have completed the terms of their sentences. All felons in Virginia are banned from voting for life unless the governor restores their rights. No state is considered worst than Virginia, and only three others – Kentucky, Iowa and Florida – have laws that are as punitive.
An estimated 375,000 people cannot vote in Virginia because they have felony convictions. Recent governors, including McDonnell, have increased the pace of restoring voting rights for individuals, but they still issue only about 1,000 restorations a year.