By Bre Payton | Watchdog.org, Virginia Bureau
ALEXANDRIA — Gov. Bob McDonnell’s recent policy change to automatically restore voting rights to non-violent felons lacks a game plan to deliver the estimated 100,000 new voters to the registrar’s rolls by November.
There are an estimated 350,000 people in Virginia barred from voting because of a felony conviction. Of these, there are an estimated 100,000 non-violent felons have completed their sentences and paid all fines, making them eligible to benefit from this policy change.
A non-violent felon is an individual who was convicted of an offense — such as fraud or drug possession without the intent to distribute — but is still below the state’s threshold of violent crime.
Without a comprehensive database however, the governor’s office has no way of notifying released felons that their rights have been restored.
Edgardo Cortes, director of the Advancement Project’s Virginia Voting Rights Restoration campaign, said the project has a hotline to get contact information to the governor’s office.
“It was formerly to help people with the application process. Now we’ve shifted course,” Cortes said. “People call, give us the info, and we can pass it to the secretary [of the commonwealth’s] office. We know there is a gap, and were trying to fill that with resources we have available and have established.”
Virginia is one of four states that strips felons of voting rights indefinitely. In the past, non-violent felons seeking to have their rights restored could petition the governor by submitting an application two years after they had completed their sentence and paid all fines.
In 2010, McDonnell expedited the process by eliminating the two year waiting period and by shortening the processing time to 60 days of when a completed application was submitted. During his administration, voting rights have been restored to 90 percent of applicants.
This policy change will require the governor’s office to hire four extra staff members, bring to six the number of full-time employees dedicated to the job. The job pays between $16,000-$18,000, said Tucker Martin, McDonnell’s communications director.
With only a month left to arrange the logistics before the July 15 start date — and with no database — the focus of the governor’s office is setting a precedent for the next governor.
Both the Republican and Democratic candidates for governor have publicly advocated for an improved rights restoration system.
“The work we are doing now will save the next governor a lot of time and allow them to hit the ground running and build on what we’ve done,” Martin said.
Bre Payton is an intern for the Virginia Bureau of Watchdog.org. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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