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Virginia Ex-Felons: Write an Essay, Get a Vote

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By Tanya Roth, Esq. on April 15, 2010 12:45 PM

Here is a story about the creative use of gubernatorial power. Virginia Governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) has decided he wants the nonviolent ex-felons under his jurisdiction to get creative and write an essay about their contributions to society since their release from prison. The result? If the secretary of the commonwealth likes the essay, they can have their right to vote back. Considering this is the governor just recovering from the bad grades he received from the likes of President Obama for his other creative proposal, that his state name April "Confederate History Month," but not include any mention of slavery, you might think Governor McDonnell would consider toning down the creative efforts pouring forth from his administration. But such is not the case.

According to The Washington Post, Gov. McDonnell wants each applicant wishing to have his or her voting rights restored to write a letter to the governor. Some feel this will create yet another obstacle to poor, less educated, or minority citizens seeking to restore their right to vote. "It's another roadblock," Sen. Yvonne B. Miller (D-Norfolk), a member of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, said when she was told of the change.

The secretary of the commonwealth of Virginia, Janet Polarek, sees the requirement from a different angle. "It gives all applicants the opportunity to have their cases heard and have their full stories told," said Secretary Polarek, whose office handles the requests. "It's an opportunity, not an obstacle."

One difficulty with the program, whether an opportunity or an obstacle, is that it is subjective. Will the secretary's office grade on a curve? Will they take points off for poor punctuation? Perhaps the best way to ensure an even-handed system is to have the automatic restoration of rights that most states do. In fact, The Post reports that only the states of Virginia and Kentucky require an act of the governor to restore voting rights to former felons.

Previous administrations in the commonwealth have had differing approaches to the voting rights restoration issue. According to The Post, under Gov. Mark R. Warner (D), felons convicted of nonviolent crimes were able to apply to have their voting rights restored by filling out a one-page form. Per his successor, Timothy M. Kaine (D), voting rights were restored to applicants who had clean records for three years. The Post writes that Governor Kaine restored the civil rights of a record 4,402 felons during his term, and Warner restored rights to 3,486. Republican predecessors James S. Gilmore III and George Allen restored rights to 238 and 460 felons, respectively.

And here is a creative interpretation of those numbers: in the past, Republicans have asserted that Democratic governors have restored voting rights to more felons than have Republican governors because felons are more likely to vote for Democrats. Obstacle or opportunity? Maybe it depends on the governor's political affiliation, and doesn't that sound a bit too creative to be constitutional?

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