Restoring Rights

May 29, 2013

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, a conservative Republican who may have a national political future, today announced an important move to restore voting rights of felons in the Old Dominion. McDonnell, who has already restored the voting rights of more felons than any previous Virginia governor, seems passionate about this issue that often is left for just liberal activists to push. In Virginia, felons permanently lose their voting rights and must apply to have them restored. This process makes Virginia one of the few states that so harshly punishes felons. And the racial imbalance of other aspects of the criminal justice system leads to a problematic discriminatory nature of this punishment. As the Washington Post noted as it urged McDonnell earlier this week to do even more on this issue, more than seven percent of the state's voting-age population is ineligible with one-fifth of African Americans ineligible and one-third of African American males ineligible. To his credit, McDonnell already restored the rights of more than 4,800 felons, which surpasses Democrat Tim Kaine's 4,402 and Democrat Mark Warner's 3,486 (and soars past the rates of Republican Jim Gilmore's 238 and Republican George Allen's 460). Yet, even McDonnell's effort pales in comparison to the more than 350,000 Virginians without voting rights. McDonnell's new effort will remove the subjective application process, which he believes will open the door for 100,000 Virginians to have their democratic rights restored. With a touch of confessional politics, McDonnell announced the change in the process today at Cedar St. Baptist Church of God in Richmond. He called the effort "the final measure of reconciliation and the final measure of healing, both for the offender and for society." He added:

America is a land of opportunity and second chances; a land where we cherish and protect our constitutional rights. 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.
NAACP National Chairman Ben Jealous, who joined McDonnell for the announcement, added:
This is an important day— this is what our country yearns for. ... We yearn for people to come together, to cross the divides of politics, to cross the divides of race. To do the right thing.
The move by McDonnell is important and it is nice to see a conservative who understands the justice system (as he was previously a prosecutor and Virginia Attorney General) make the restoring of constitutional rights a high priority. It is also good to see Virginia take an important step to chip away at the racial injustice in the state constitution and criminal system. After all, the provision to strip away the voting rights came as one of several racist efforts during the 1902 constitutional convention to undermine the rights and influence of African Americans. So McDonnell should be applauded for doing the right thing by working to restore rights.