VA: McDonnell Restores Rights to 506 Eligible Felons

Gov. Bob McDonnell has granted 506 of the 574 eligible applications from felons seeking restoration of their civil rights.

This is the first update since the administration announced a 60-day deadline to act on applications and a review process that it said would be faster and more efficient.

Restoration of civil rights enables felons to vote, serve on juries and to run for or hold public office.

Secretary of the Commonwealth Janet Polarek yesterday shared the results of 1,080 applications that the administration has vetted since it announced the new process May 20.

Of that pool, 574 applications were eligible, complete and waiting for a decision. McDonnell granted 373 two-year applications -- the category for the bulk of nonviolent felons -- and 133 five-year applications -- typically for violent felons plus other infractions the state lumps into that category.

A nonviolent felon must wait two years after completing his or her sentence before applying; it's five years for a violent felon.

The governor denied 22 of the two-year applicants and 46 of the five-year applicants.

"We are very pleased that we have been able to stick with the new system," Polarek said. "It's working, we met the deadline and we're turning around these applications in a really fair and fast way."

The new process had a rough birth. The administration in April considered a change that would require nonviolent felons to submit with their application a letter explaining the circumstances of their arrest and conviction, subsequent strides in education or community service and why the restoration is justified.

The proposed process -- coming on the heels of the governor's proclamation of April as Confederate History Month -- drew criticism from civil-rights groups -- who likened the letters to literacy tests that once impeded voting.

The administration killed the letter idea and instead added an optional item on the application, where felons seeking restoration of their rights can describe any community service or comparable service they want to bring to the governor's attention.

Kent Willis, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, was among the critics of the administration's early proposal. He said yesterday that at this rate, McDonnell, a Republican, is on course to meet and maybe surpass his two predecessors, both Democrats.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine restored the rights of more than 4,300 felons during his term. Gov. Mark R. Warner restored rights to 3,486.

"After a very rough start, the governor seems to have found [his] sea legs," Willis said.

He urged community and faith groups to actively recruit and assist people who are seeking restoration, considering the fact that McDonnell approved about 90 percent of the completed applications.

Of the total 1,080 applications that the administration handled so far, 650 were left over from the Kaine administration and an additional 430 came in under the McDonnell administration between Jan. 16 and May 15.

Only 888 had all of the information required to process them and 192 were incomplete. An additional 314 were ineligible for consideration, usually because the applicant had not waited long enough, according to Polarek.

Still, Willis adds, at this pace, "the results will be anemic," considering there are more than 300,000 people who can't vote because of a felony record. Willis prefers an automatic restoration of civil rights. Virginia and Kentucky are the only states that leave the restoration approval solely with the governor.

"If Governor McDonnell restores voting rights to [4,000] or 5,000 individuals during his four-year term, that will be commendable" he said. "But it's still a drop in the bucket, leaving about 98 percent of Virginia's disenfranchised persons unable to vote."

This article was printed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on July 17th, 2010 and was written by Olympia Meola.