RICHMOND, Va. —
Some of the advocates who cheered Gov. Bob McDonnell’s announcement in May that he would automatically restore the voting rights of nonviolent felons are now concerned that the initiative might not have as big an impact as they thought — at least not right away. Others say they’re just happy that progress is being made.
Administration officials are expected to announce details of the program Monday, the day it takes effect.
McDonnell originally said that about 100,000 disenfranchised felons might be added to the voter rolls, but advocates for civil rights and inmates are bracing for the likelihood that only a fraction of that pool will have their rights restored in time for the November election.
“People are concerned the reality is not going to match the rhetoric,” said Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia.
In Virginia, only the governor can restore felons’ rights to vote, serve on a jury and hold elective office. McDonnell already has streamlined the process and has restored the rights of more than 5,000 felons, more than any previous administration.
The governor announced in May that he would drop a requirement that nonviolent felons apply to have their rights restored and replace it with an automatic process — but one that still would employ individual consideration, which McDonnell believes the Virginia Constitution requires. He also eliminated a two-year waiting period. Violent felons still will have to wait five years and apply to regain their civil rights.
According to the Sentencing Project, about 350,000 Virginians remained disenfranchised in 2010.
Immediately after the change to an automatic process was announced, the McDonnell administration formed a work group of advocates and about half a dozen state agencies to hammer out the mechanics, including how to identify and educate the thousands of felons who have long given up trying to regain their rights. Without a statewide database, it was clear a massive outreach effort would be required.
Gastanaga said that before the group could conduct its first meeting, the administration reclassified two offenses — burglary and breaking and entering of an unoccupied dwelling — from nonviolent to violent felonies, prompting concerns that the automatic restoration was not going to be as sweeping as activists had hoped.
“As it was unfolding, we were concerned that this isn’t going to look like what we all thought it would look like,” Gastanaga said.
Tram Nguyen, associate director of the civil and voting rights group Virginia New Majority, said the organization has signaled its opposition to the reclassification with Virginia Secretary of the Commonwealth Janet Kelly, who is leading the restoration of rights project.
“When we were informed of it, we were concerned and shocked,” she said. “I don’t know what led to that decision.”
Gastanaga also shared the ACLU’s concerns in a letter to McDonnell late last month.
“The list of non-violent offenses for the restoration of civil rights must be as expansive and inclusive as possible for your policy to be meaningful,” she wrote.
Edgardo Cortes, director of the Virginia Voting Rights Restoration Campaign for the Advancement Project, added his voice to the opposition but said he remains hopeful the administration will back off the reclassification.
“They’ve been listening to the concerns we’ve raised, so that’s a positive for us,” he said.
The activists and the administration agree on one point: Figuring out how the new system will work has been harder than anyone expected.
“This is one of the most complex issues I have ever worked on,” Kelly said. “However, the determination of the governor to make this work combined with the good ideas generated by the work group and the willingness on the part of the state agencies involved have put us in a very good position to address this issue in a meaningful way even though we are in the last year of the administration.”
Said Cortes: “It’s just a very big undertaking to go from an individual, one-by-one system to an automatic process. It has been rather daunting.”
Kelly declined to disclose any of the specifics of the new process before Monday’s rollout. Activists say they are anxiously awaiting the details.
“Overall, we’re positive about it,” Cortes said. “Given where Virginia was even six months ago and where we are on this issue today, this is a big step in the right direction.”
He acknowledged that the change “doesn’t go quite as far as our ideal” — blanket restoration of rights. Some activists believe the governor could do that through executive order, but McDonnell believes it would require a constitutional amendment. Legislation to amend the constitution to automatically restore rights has failed repeatedly, most recently last winter when the Republican governor championed the historically Democrat-backed proposal.
“Are we 100 percent satisfied with where we are now? No,” Nguyen said. “Ultimately we need a constitutional amendment, but this is good groundwork, and we hope it’s something the future administrations will build on.”