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Groups Push to Restore Va. Felons' Voting Rights

Tim Craig // Published June 17, 2008 in Washington Post
RICHMOND -- Civic and social organizations are teaming with Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine to try to add thousands of nonviolent offenders to the voting rolls in time for the November election, a move that has angered Republicans who say the effort is designed to help Democratic Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign.

Under Virginia's constitution, people convicted of a felony automatically lose their right to vote for life, which has resulted in an estimated 300,000 residents being disenfranchised, even though they are not in prison.

But a Virginia governor can restore a felon's voting rights. Under a process set up by former governor Mark R. Warner (D) , felons convicted of nonviolent crimes can apply to have their voting rights restored if they have a clean record for three years after their sentence has been completed. People convicted of violent felonies, which in Virginia includes selling drugs, have to wait five years.

Earlier this year, Kaine (D) promised that his administration would expedite a review of applications from nonviolent felons who submit their papers by Aug. 1.

The former inmates would be able to register in time to vote in the November presidential contest between Obama (Ill.) and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the presumptive GOP nominee. The felons also would get their rights back to sit on a jury and hold public office.

"The whole name of the game is once they get out and once they serve their time and they have demonstrated they want to get into mainstream society and be good citizens, it's just fundamental to that, they have their civil rights restored," said Bernard Henderson, deputy secretary of the commonwealth, whose office is charged with processing the applications.

Only Virginia and Kentucky require an act of the governor to restore voting rights to felons. The vast majority of states, including Maryland, automatically restore voting rights after a sentence is completed. The District allows felons to vote upon release from prison. Maine and Vermont even allow felons to vote from jail.

The Kaine administration's efforts come as a coalition of groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP, have launched an ambitious drive to get convicted felons information on how they can apply to have their voting rights restored.

The groups have taken out newspaper ads, spread the word through churches and gone door to door, urging felons to apply to Kaine.

"A lot of felons operate under the miscomprehension that loss of their voting rights is permanent, so what we are doing, is saying, 'No, no, no, there is a way,' " said Gwinnett Hagens, executive director of Democracy South, a Virginia Beach social justice organization that is reaching out to tens of thousands of unregistered voters in Hampton Roads.

Henderson isn't sure how many applications to expect but said, "It is going to be a challenge for us if we get absolutely swamped, but we will divert staff to do this."

Kent Willis, executive director of the Virginia branch of the ACLU, and other activists say the campaign to register more felons is a civil rights issue, not a political one.

"Virginia's situation is extremely punitive, and we are working within the system to get as many folks as possible their rights restored," said Adisa Muse, director of the Virginia Voter Restoration Project.

Although they don't dispute Kaine's authority to grant pardons and clemency to criminals, some GOP legislators are skeptical of the efforts this year to get felons onto the voting rolls.

"I don' t know a lot of young Republicans who end up being felons," said Del. C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah). "Clearly the groups that are soliciting these felons to get their rights restored are predisposed to be in support of Obama, and I am sure this registration effort is designed to help their candidate."

The effort comes as Obama, who views Virginia as a key battleground state this fall, is trying to register tens of thousands of new voters in the state this summer.

Some political strategists say former inmates are the largest block of unregistered voters over age 18 in Virginia. The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based group that supports criminal justice reform, estimates that 20 percent of Virginia's black population is ineligible to vote because they are in prison or have a past felony conviction.

Amy Brundage, an Obama spokeswoman, said there is "no organized effort to target ex-offenders" in Virginia. But some Obama workers are providing information to felons about how they can get their rights restored.

"If you are in areas where there are large numbers of unregistered voters, one of the reasons you see that is they are ineligible because of felony convictions," said Kristin Szakos, co-chairman of Charlottesville Area Obama Volunteers, adding that canvassers carry "restoration of rights" forms.

Kaine, one of Obama's national co-chairmen, maintains that his decision to quickly process the applications this year has nothing to do with the presidential election.

"We follow the same basic protocol for nonviolent individuals who have been finished with whatever their sentence," said Kaine, noting that Warner restored voting rights for about 3,500 nonviolent offenders when he was governor.

Del. William R. Janis (R-Goochland) said he thinks the "election is clouding every decision the governor is making."

"There shouldn't be a wholesale, automatic restoration of voting rights to a class of felons for the sole purpose of swelling the voting rolls prior to the November elections," Janis said.

But Henderson, who said he is so far receiving only about 35 applications each week, notes that many of the applications come from felons seeking to have their gun rights restored. A court, not the governor, has to restore that right, but many judges want felons to first get their voting rights back.

Gun owners are considered a vital part of the GOP base in Virginia.