January 11, 2013
(The Sentencing Project)
Virginia: Governor Supports Restoring Voting Rights to Individuals with Nonviolent Felony Convictions
Virginia Governor Supports Restoring Voting Rights to Individuals with Nonviolent Felony Convictions
In his 2013 State of the Commonwealth speech on Wednesday, Governor Bob McDonnell announced his support for a constitutional amendment to automatically restore voting rights to individuals with nonviolent felony convictions upon completion of their sentence. Current Virginia law permanently revokes the voting rights of all individuals with felony convictions, even after they’ve served their time. Virginia is one of four states where the power to restore voting rights rests solely with the governor, with a waiting period between two and five years before individuals can apply.
The Washington Post lauded the governor in an editorial for pushing his state to end its “archaic” disenfranchisement practices. Virginia’s overall disenfranchisement rate—almost 6 percent of the voting age population, or roughly 350,000 residents—is among the highest in the nation, with a disproportionate impact on black residents; an estimated one-fifth of African Americans in the state are currently disenfranchised.
Since the 2013 General Assembly convened on January 9, legislators from both parties have introduced bills that would enact automatic rights restoration. A constitutional amendment must be approved by the General Assembly for two consecutive years before its fate is determined by voter ballot.
A Constitutional Case Against Virginia’s Felony Disenfranchisement Laws
In an article in The Nation, Brentin Mock covers a recent legal challenge to felony disenfranchisement laws in Virginia. Sa'ad El-Amin, a former Richmond city council member who lost his right to vote when he was convicted of felony tax evasion, is suing the state to overturn the state's disenfranchisement law on the grounds that it violates the equal protection, due process, and cruel and unusual punishment clauses of the U.S. Constitution. An amicus brief submitted to the U.S. District Court from William and Mary Law School found that Virginia’s felony disenfranchisement laws violate due process rights. They also concluded that while there isn’t a strong case for an equal protection violation on the basis of race, there might be a case for a violation on the basis of felony conviction. A federal judge requested the analysis from William and Mary after denying the state’s attempt to have the case dismissed.
Iowa Governor Streamlines Process for Restoring Voting Rights
In response to concerns raised by the NAACP, Governor Terry Branstad has announced policy changes that will make it easier for individuals with former felony convictions to have their voting rights restored. The new changes include simplified application instructions, the removal of the credit history check requirement, and a detailed checklist to help applicants turn in a completed application. In addition, it is no longer required that applicants have paid all of their court costs, fines and restitution to become eligible for restoration, as long as they are making a "good faith effort" to do so.
The rights restoration process still requires an individual to complete a 29-question application, submit documentation verifying their efforts to pay off court fees, and pay $15 for an Iowa criminal history check. In a statement released shortly after the Governor’s announcement, the NAACP expressed that although automatic rights restoration would be preferable, “a streamlined application is a good first step.”