Darrell Gooden wanted to vote in the historic 2008 election, but he couldn’t because he was released from prison the year before and needed to wait two years before applying to reinstate his voting rights, under Virginia law. Last week, the state’s Republican Governor Robert McDonnell announced a policy to automatically restore voting rights for nonviolent felons who have served their time. “All of a sudden, I feel like I’m a U.S. citizen again,” said Gooden, 40, who was convicted of marijuana and cocaine possession in 2002 and served nearly five years in prison. “I can’t believe this is really happening.” Virginia had been one of four states, including Iowa, Florida and Kentucky, where voting rights were not automatically restored once a felon completed his or her prison time, parole or probation.
Michael Edwards, a community leader in southern Virginia, spent eight years in prison for a marijuana-trafficking conviction in the 1970s. But he said he feels like he was punished for more than 30 years — the time it took for him to regain his voting rights in Virginia. That won’t happen to any other ex-felons in Virginia if a group of civil rights organizations are successful in their campaign to push Gov. Robert McDonnell to provide an easier path to voting for ex-felons who have served their time. “These people live and work and pay taxes but don’t have a voice on this issue,” said Edgardo Cortes of the Advancement Project, a voting rights group based in Washington, D.C., during a national telephone press conference Wednesday. “The governor has shown leadership on this issue but now is the time for him to take additional action.”
Here’s the good news about civil rights for former felons in Virginia: True to his word, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell is restoring voting privileges to ex-inmates faster than his predecessors did. Now the bad news: With the exception of Florida, Virginia has the nation’s worst record when it comes to disenfranchising its citizens. In this case, unfortunately, the bad news outweighs the good. Mr. McDonnell, a Republican former prosecutor and attorney general, is well aware that granting voting rights to more ex-offenders who have completed their sentences is an important step toward rebuilding their lives as responsible citizens. That’s why he made it a campaign promise and a priority of his administration, along with expanding job training, counseling and other important programs for former convicts.
Virginia Governor Robert F. McDonnell has moved to gut an obnoxious bill, championed by Republican lawmakers, that would have needlessly stiffened voting requirements for Virginians. The governor’s level-headed move has annoyed his fellow Republicans, but it has also reaffirmed his reputation as a conservative who has governed mainly as a pragmatist — a reputation that propels him to the short list of Mitt Romney’s putative running mates. Although he didn’t veto the bill, Mr. McDonnell offered a series of amendments whose effect will be to render the legislation all but moot. That’s a good thing, because the voter ID bill is a gratuitously divisive measure whose only effect would have been to invalidate ballots cast by thousands of poor, young, elderly and minority voters. Under a state law that has worked well for decades, Virginia voters who lack identification may cast ballots anyway, providing they sign an affidavit attesting to their identity. Falsifying the affidavit is a felony under state law.
For the second time in three months, the Obama administration has blocked a state law pushed by Republicans that, using the pretext of a nearly nonexistent problem of voting fraud, discriminates against minority voters by establishing more stringent voter ID rules. Memo to Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell: You might be next. In December, the Justice Department moved against South Carolina, saying its new law would suppress turnout among African American voters, who are more likely than other voters to lack identification. On Monday, the department blocked Texas from enforcing a similar measure requiring voters to show photo IDs at the polls, which federal officials said would disproportionately affect Hispanic voters.