While Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) touted his plan to restore voting rights to the state’s nonviolent felons, advocacy groups were monitoring how much impact it could have.
The Washington Post reported on Monday that the plan could impact about 100,000 former prisoners. Since 2010, McDonnell’s administration has approved 5,235 to return to the voting pool.
But without electronic records before 1995, state officials also have a hard time locating former felons who are potentially eligible to renew their voting rights, and are turning to felons’ rights groups for assistance.
“We could easily find the felons who were currently in the system or who had previously expressed an interest in getting their rights back,” Secretary of the Commonwealth Janet Kelly told the Post. “However, there is no accurate comprehensive database of felons who are not currently in the legal or corrections system and have been released from probation, and the stakeholder group helped us to find creative solutions to meet that challenge.”
On Monday, the state added a contact form on its website allowing former felons to contact officials. The state is also providing a toll-free information line for those without computer access.
“We are pleased to hear the Governor has committed sufficient resources to automatically restore rights to the 500 to 700 eligible people completing their sentences every month,” Advancement Project co-director Penda D. Hair said in a statement. “This will help stem the tide of disenfranchisement, while the additional resources he has added chip away at the hundreds of thousands of Virginians who have previously lost their rights.”
But Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that McDonnell’s move to reclassify burglary and breaking and entering of unoccupied residences as violent felonies — thus preventing felons convicted of those crimes from the voting initiative — prompted the ACLU to share its concerns in a letter to him in June 2013.
“The list of nonviolent offenses for the restoration of civil rights must be as expansive and inclusive as possible for your policy to be meaningful,” the ACLU told McDonnell in the letter.
The Advancement Project has expressed its own concerns over McDonnell’s move. And another advocacy group, Virginia New Majority (VNM), have also told the administration they opposed the switch in classification.
“When we were informed of it, we were concerned and shocked,” VNM associate director Tram Nguyen told the Times-Dispatch. “I don’t know what led to that decision.”
[Correction: This story originally referred to the Advancement Project and the Virginia Voting Rights Restoration Campaign as two separate organizations, but VVRRC is part of the Advancement Project.]
[Image: “Young Man Looking From Behind The Bars” via Shutterstock]