WASHINGTON POST: Virginia Governor cuts wait times for felons wanting voting rights

May 20, 2010
Rosalind Helderman

Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) announced today that he is reducing the time that must pass, from three years to two, before a nonviolent felon who has completed his sentence can apply to have his voting rights restored. McDonnell also pledged that his office will act on those requests within 60 days after receiving information from the felon, courts and other agencies.

McDonnell said the new process is designed to speed reintegration into civil society for felons who have completed their sentences. He said the goal was to create the "fastest and fairest" process in modern Virginia history.

McDonnell faced withering criticism from civil rights groups and others after 200 nonviolent felons received a notice from the governor's office that under a new policy, they would need to write a letter to the governor explaining their community involvement and justifying their request.

McDonnell's office later said the notice was sent in error and they were conducting a broad review of restoration of rights policies. The new policy, announced today, asks nonviolent felons to list a "brief description of civic or community involvement" but does not require a free-form letter. In a conference call, McDonnell said applications from felons who leave the question blank will not be considered incomplete nor will a non-answer mean felons will necessarily have their applications rejected. "We'll just assume they don't have anything to say," he said.

Advocates for felons had said they believed many former prisoners would be discouraged and deterred from applying by the request for the letter.

McDonnell said he has also acted on the almost 200 applications received since he took office, as well as many of the 650 open cases left over from former governor Tim Kaine (D).

Thirty-nine states automatically return voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences. In Virginia, rights are revoked upon conviction and can be restored only by action of the governor.

More details and reaction from interest groups to come in our full story on the issue.