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Virginia's ballot-box disgrace

// Published January 13, 2010 in Washington Post

FOUR YEARS have passed since Jennifer McDaniel was released from a Virginia prison, where she served time on a grand larceny conviction for shoplifting. Since then, Ms. McDaniel, who is 43 and lives in Alexandria, has held a steady job managing a kennel and dog-grooming business, learned to read and write, and, she says, steered clear of the heroin addiction that laid waste to her life for 27 years. Last month, a Prince William County judge, noting that he was "favorably impressed" with her behavior and accomplishments, ended her supervised probation.

Having paid her debt to society -- and, she notes with some pride, "all my taxes" -- Ms. McDaniel wants the right to vote. In 48 other states she would have it. But not in Virginia, where an antiquated constitution robs her and tens of thousands of other former felons of their most fundamental democratic right.

"I'm trying to redeem myself from the life that I lived by paying taxes and following all the rules and regulations," she told us the other day. "I just feel that I should be heard and my vote should be counted. But in the eyes of the government, I'm a no-count."

Such is the commonwealth's disdain for the rights of former felons that it doesn't even bother to compile an estimate of how many remain disenfranchised once their sentences have been served. Voting rights advocates say there are some 300,000 former convicts in that category; even if that figure is inflated, the numbers are staggering. What's more, they are racially skewed: Although African Americans account for just a fifth of Virginia's 7.8 million citizens, they are thought to constitute about half of those ineligible to vote. No wonder racist state lawmakers who reviewed the commonwealth's constitution a century ago lauded the provision and, in the toxic spirit of Jim Crow, elected to keep it.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a former civil rights lawyer, recognizes that the status quo is a disgrace and has backed legislation to change the constitution. (The legislation has cleared the Virginia Senate but not the Republican-controlled House of Delegates.) But Mr. Kaine, despite his extensive authority to issue executive orders, has been too timid to tackle the issue. Many experts -- at prominent universities, civil rights groups and law firms, including Washington and Lee, the NAACP and Hogan & Hartson -- say the governor would be on solid legal footing if he issued a blanket restoration of voting rights to former felons. He has declined to do so, citing lawyerly and logistical hurdles. Since the state maintains no centralized list of former felons, for example, it might be hard to identify them or even to distinguish, say, between violent and nonviolent ex-offenders.

Last week, a federal appeals court in Washington state, citing racial disparities in the justice system, ruled that incarcerated felons must be allowed to vote. While laws vary among states -- most still deny voting rights until convicts have fulfilled their prison sentences and probations -- only Virginia and Kentucky are so extreme as to bar former felons from the polls until and unless the governor approves their petition to restore that right. (Here is the application that violent former felons must complete.)

Although Mr. Kaine and his predecessor, Mark R. Warner, have approved the vast majority of petitions by former felons seeking to recover their voting rights, the cumbersome rules mean that in practice only a few thousand such applications are submitted each year. Gov.-elect Robert F. McDonnell says he would expedite the process for nonviolent former felons. That's laudable. But even nonviolent ex-convicts like Ms. McDaniel, who have worked hard, rebuilt their lives and done all the state has asked of them, must wait three years after completing their punishments before they are eligible even to apply for the restoration of their voting rights. That is nothing short of a scandal.

To watch a video of Ms. McDaniel discussing her case, visit http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions.