Virginia Governor Backtracks on Backwards “Essay Requirement” for Former Felons
by Project Vote, Thu Apr 15, 2010 at 06:35:03 PM EDT
Cross-posted at Project Vote’s blog, Voting Matters
As Congress deliberates over setting a federal standard for restoring the civil rights of released felons, Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell appeared to be creating more roadblocks to the democratic process for felons in his state. However, after much criticism from lawmakers and voting rights groups in the last few days, the governor has backed down; McDonnell now says his new requirement for felons to write an essay outlining their contribution to society in order to restore their voting rights was merely a "draft policy proposal."
Last weekend, the Washington Post reported that McDonnell’s office would soon be requiring felons to write a letter discussing their job, education, and church activities as part of the application process for regaining their voting rights—a procedure that was likened to a "character test" that is "utterly arbitrary" by the Post in a Tuesdayeditorial.
Earlier this year, McDonnell’s office sent a noticeto more than 200 felons that they would need to submit their essays before April 1; many of them complied. However, after widespread media reporting (and even a letter from the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law asking state Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli if the state was granted preclearance to implement the new procedure under the Voting Rights Act), McDonnell now says that there is no new requirement yet, and that the notice sent was a "mistake," according to the Post yesterday.
"As this paper [the Washington Post] and other media outlets have been told, this remains a draft policy proposal. Nothing has changed," said McDonnell’s spokesperson, Tucker Martin.
"This is a rather odd way to make policy, but we're delighted if they're serious about dropping the requirement of a lengthy personal letter to the governor," said Kent Willis, executive director of the Virginia branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. Yesterday, Secretary of the Commonwealth Janet Polarek reportedly met with the ACLU and the NAACP about making changes to the restoration process.
With one of the nation’s strictest felon voting laws, Virginia is home to about 300,000 disenfranchised felons who have already served their time and are living and working in their communities. According to the Post last weekend, the controversial new requirement, which would have turned "a nearly automatic process into a subjective one that some say may prevent poor, less-educated or minority residents from being allowed to vote," raised questions as to the purpose of such a change. Previously, felons seeking to restore their voting rights were required to submit a one-page application, which would be reviewed by the governor—a process that would often take several months. McDonnell pledged during his campaign for governor to streamline the already arduous process of restoring voting rights, yet has not restored any felon’s rights since taking office in January, the Post reported.
Until yesterday, civil rights advocates worried that the essay procedure would only reduce the pool of voter applicants who may find it intimidating.
"It's another roadblock," said Sen. Yvonne B. Miller (D-Norfolk), a member of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus and author of a number of failed bills to permit automatic restoration of voting rights for nonviolent offenders. "This is designed to suppress the rights of poor people," she said.
Disenfranchisement of the poor, intentional or not, is a problem that is not exclusive to Virginia.
Low-income and minority citizens are overrepresented in the criminal justice system, resulting "in an under-representation of these same groups at the polls, according to a recent Project Vote policy paper. "The disenfranchisement rate of African-American men is seven times the national average at 13 percent, or 1.4 million. African-American women are disenfranchised at nearly four times the rate of non-African American women," and "four of every five drug offenders in state prison are African-American or Latino. However, this number is largely due to inconsistencies in prosecution and sentencing and is not indicative of greater drug use in either community."
Felon voting laws vary widely across the country, ranging from no disenfranchisement in Maine and Vermont to permanent disenfranchisement (unless approved by a governor) in Virginia and Kentucky. Voting rights advocates argue that these inequalities not only help perpetuate the imbalance in the electorate by under-representing certain communities, but also hinder the success of individual felons in reintegrating into society.
The Brennan Center for Justice blogged on Sunday about the "compelling need for a federal standard." (The group recently wrote an issue brief, The Democracy Restoration Act: Addressing a Centuries-Old Injustice, for the American Constitution Society). Currently, the Democracy Restoration Act, a bill to automatically restore the federal voting rights of felons upon release from their sentences, is pending in Congress.
"...Without a national standard, the United States remains one of the only industrialized democracies where significant portions of its voting-age population are denied the ability to participate in civic life," the public policy and law institute wrote. "International covenants and declarations recognize the right to vote as a fundamental human right and many countries' have determined that denying citizens with criminal convictions their fundamental rights is incompatible with the principle of equality in the protection of civil and political rights."
Project Vote’s brief, Restoring Voting Rights to Former Felons