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Virginia Governor Robert F. McDonnell(R) voiced his disappointment Jan. 14 when a House subcommittee killed proposals to automatically restore the voting rights of nonviolent felons who have paid their debt to society.

“I am very disappointed in today’s vote against these constitutional amendments. Once individuals have served their time and paid their fines, restitution and other costs, they should have the opportunity to rejoin society as fully contributing members,” McDonnell said.

True to his 2009 campaign promise to restore more voting rights to convicted felons than his Democratic predecessor Tim Kaine — who set a record at 4,402 —McDonnell has already surpassed that mark, with 10 months left to go in office.

In 2010, shortly after assuming the commonwealth’s top spot, McDonnell reduced the number of years non-violent felons had to wait after completing their sentence before applying to have their right to vote restored, from three years to two years. He also streamlined a petition process that often was taking more than a year to get answered, down to 60 days.

“This is an issue of justice to him,” said Secretary of the Commonwealth Janet Kelly. “When he was a private attorney, he would occasionally get requests from clients to help them with the petition process. Back then it often took 18 months to get an answer, and it was usually, ‘No.’”

On Jan. 14, the constitutional amendments subcommittee of the House Privileges and Elections Committee--made up of five Republicans and two Democrats--voted down House Joint Resolution 535, a constitutional amendment sponsored by Del. Charniele Herring, (D-Alexandria) that would have automatically restored the civil rights of felons who have completed their prison terms. The subcommittee voted to “pass the amendment by indefinitely” which suggests that it will not come back up during this legislative session.

“I believe strongly, as a matter of conscience, in protecting the constitutional rights of our citizens,” McDonnell said in a release following the vote. “And I believe that it is time for Virginia to join the overwhelming majority of states in eliminating our bureaucratic restoration process and creating a clear, predictable, constitutional and statutory process.”

The voting rights of convicted felons are restored automatically in 39 states after their sentences have been completed. Virginia remains one of only four states in which rights are not restored automatically and in which felons must personally petition the governor — who solely possesses the authority to accept or deny the petition.

According to Kelly, McDonnell has approved 90 percent of applications from non-violent offenders and 80 percent of violent ones.

“There are 350,000 Virginia residents who currently do not have their voting rights,” said Claire Gastanaga, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia. “As long as voting rights are restored on a person-by-person basis, it will always remain a drop in the bucket.”



gmacdonald@fairfaxtimes.com