RICHMOND, VA -- Ten Virginia civil rights and faith-based groups, including The Rutherford Institute, have sent a letter to Governor Tim Kaine urging him to issue an executive order that would restore voting rights to most or all of Virginia's 300,000 individuals who are being denied the right to vote because of a felony conviction, and to put in place a process for automatically restoring rights to others who complete their sentences in the future. A copy of the letter is available here.
The letter was signed by the following organizations: NAACP Virginia State Conference, Virginia League of Women Voters, Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, Virginia Poverty Law Center, Virginia Organizing Project, STEP-UP, Incorporated, Virginia CURE, The Northern Virginia Coalition, American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, and The Rutherford Institute. Many other Virginia organizations, including the Virginia Catholic Conference, the Virginia Conference United Methodist Church, the Old Dominion Bar Association and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. State Social Action Task Force, have also called for reform of Virginia's felon disfranchisement law.
"There is nothing more sacred than the right to vote," said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. "When someone has paid their debt to society, that right should be restored."
Only Virginia and Kentucky permanently disenfranchise all felons upon conviction, requiring an act of the Governor to restore voting rights. Of the 48 other states, two never remove voting rights and most automatically restore rights upon completion of prison sentence, parole or probation. Governor Kaine has been asked numerous times during his tenure as Governor to take action to modernize Virginia's voter restoration procedures. Advocates are hopeful the he will follow the lead of the Democratic Governor of Iowa and Republican Governor of Florida, both of whom took executive action in the last few years to reform their state's felon disfranchisement policies.
Under the Virginia Constitution, only the Governor has the power to restore voting rights. In practice that has been accomplished through a cumbersome application process resulting in a few thousand individuals having their rights restored during the term of recent governors. Scholars, however, say the Governor of Virginia, like those in other states with similar constitutional provisions, has the power to issue a blanket restoration order that would grant voting rights to everyone who has lost them. While many states instituted permanent felon disfranchisement during Jim Crow, in recent years all but Virginia and Kentucky have reformed their disfranchisement laws. Studies indicate that felons who vote are half as likely to be re-arrested as those who do not, a finding that has caused pragmatists from across political party and ideological lines to support felon disfranchisement reform.