Governor Bob McDonnell made a historic move Wednesday by issued an executive order restoring voting rights to those non-violent felons who have completed their sentence and satisfied all the conditions of their punishment. The praise McDonnell received from both the NAACP and ACLU is a reassuring sign that there are many policy areas where reform has strong support across the political spectrum.
Virginia was one of the four states that did not automatically return voting rights, and after 30 years of efforts to amend the Constitution failed, including one in the most recent legislative session, the governor issued the executive order. McDonnell reaffirmed his push for a constitutional amendment since future governors can overturn executive orders.
The current system requires a two-year waiting process and petition, which the Sentencing Project estimates has left disenfranchised 350,000 Virginians who have served their sentence. The petitions would be reviewed by the governor's office, which had broad discretion over the decision of restoring rights. "Your rights under the constitution and your civil rights as an American should not be dependent on the whim of one person that is what this change does," said McDonnell.
The governor said in a speech announcing the change that "We are a nation of second chances. We believe in redemption and restoration. And our recidivism rate in Virginia is down to 23%. But part of what we've been able to do is have a aggressive prisoner re-entry system, but also to get people fully reintegrated into society."
NAACP president and CEO Benjamin Jealous echoed that sentiment: "We have a responsibility to reintegrate people back into our society — that is how we get safer, that is how we get stronger."
ProCon.org estimates that 5.8 million people nationwide do not have the right to vote because of laws restricting the voting rights of ex-felons.