Starting July 15, nonviolent felons in Virginia will have their voting rights automatically restored upon completion of all the terms of their sentence, Gov. Bob McDonnell announced May 29.

The automatic renewal will be decided on an individual basis and will be available only for those who have completed their sentence, probation or parole, paid all fines, restitution and other court-ordered conditions, and have no pending felony charges. Previously, rights could be restored only by personally applying to state authorities.

“America is a land of opportunity and second chances; a land where we cherish and protect our constitutional rights,” McDonnell said in a statement. “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.”

Juvenile offender and prisoner rehabilitation and re-entry has been one of Gov. McDonnell’s priorities. Since 2010, with the creation of the Prisoner and Juvenile Offender Re-entry Council, the state has made “tremendous progress” in preparing ex-offenders for re-entry into society, McDonnell said. For example, applications for the restoration of rights are being processed far more quickly—60 days or less—and in greater numbers than in previous administrations.

The move from an application to an automatic process should further boost the reforms. The secretary of the Commonwealth will meet with stakeholders over the next 45 days to figure out the administrative and legal details of the transition.

“We will do as much as we can within existing Virginia law to get as many individuals their voting and other rights back as quickly as we possibly can,” McDonnell stated. “It is the right thing to do for these fellow Virginians, and it’s the right thing to do for Virginia.”

Ex-offender disenfranchisement has been an ongoing concern of civil rights groups across the United States. According to the ACLU, state felony disfranchisement laws, which vary in severity, prevent approximately 5.85 million Americans with felony—and, in several states, misdemeanor—convictions from voting. Confusion about, and misapplication, of these laws disenfranchise countless others.

In Virginia, there are more than 450,000 persons—about 7.3 percent of the population—who are barred from voting, according to the Sentencing Project.

Civil rights groups praised McDonnell for his bold step in empowering those Virginians.

“This year our elected officials are bringing the issue of felony disenfranchisement to the forefront and Governor McDonnell has taken the lead,” Rev. Nathaniel Young, president of the NAACP Virginia State Conference, said in a statement. “Today’s changes are a testament to the years of hard work the NAACP and other leading advocacy groups have put into ridding the state of a century-old policy that has disenfranchised too many of our citizens. This is a step in the right direction for Virginia.”

“Governor McDonnell deserves credit for the efforts that he has already made to increase the number of felons who have had their rights restored and praise for becoming an advocate for reform of Virginia’s antiquated law denying for life felons’ civil rights,” ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Claire G. Gastañaga said in January. “For too long, Virginia has been out of step with the rest of the country by continuing to disenfranchise all felons for life. McDonnell is right; it’s time for Virginia to shed this vestige of the Jim Crow era and provide offenders the opportunity to participate again in our democracy.”

Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO