Civil Rights Groups Seek Restoration of Felons’ Rights in Va.

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File photo of a jail. (credit: BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images)

File photo of a jail. (credit: BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images)

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RICHMOND, Va. — Two civil rights groups are urging Gov. Bob McDonnell to sign an executive order restoring the voting rights of about 350,000 felons who have completed their sentences.

Edgardo Cortes of the Advancement Project said Wednesday that Virginia is one of only four states that permanently strip felons of their civil rights — voting, holding public office, and serving on a jury or as a notary. The Virginia Constitution says felons cannot vote unless their civil rights have been restored by the governor “or other appropriate authority.”

In the last legislative session, the Republican governor unsuccessfully pushed for a constitutional amendment to allow automatic restoration of nonviolent felons’ rights — an initiative historically championed by Democrats.

However, Cortes said an amendment is not needed because the Virginia Constitution doesn’t limit the governor’s power to restore rights. That means he could take care of Virginia’s entire population of disenfranchised felons with the stroke of a pen, Cortes said.

“The legislature has failed to act, so now it’s time for the governor to act,” he told reporters during a teleconference.

The Advancement Project made a similar appeal four years ago to McDonnell’s predecessor, Democrat Tim Kaine, who said he felt his administration had streamlined the process enough to make restoration of rights relatively easy for anyone who wanted to apply. McDonnell has further refined and accelerated the process, restoring the rights of more felons than any previous administration with nearly a year still remaining in his term.

A McDonnell spokesman was noncommittal when asked whether the governor agrees that he could restore rights with an executive order.

“The administration continues exploring all available options to make this process even more efficient and to provide second chances to these citizens as quickly as possible,” spokesman Jeff Caldwell said in an email.

Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the party’s presumptive nominee for governor in the November election, also has appointed an advisory committee to examine whether automatic restoration of rights is possible within the existing constitutional framework. Cuccinelli spokesman Brian Gottstein said the panel, which will do most of its work privately, held its first meeting March 19.

Cortes, director of the Advancement Project’s Virginia voting rights restoration campaign, said his organization already has researched the issue and has determined that “the governor has very broad power” under the constitution to restore rights in blanket fashion, without accepting and vetting applications from Virginians who have paid their debt to society.

Tram Nguyen, associate director of Virginia New Majority, said several church groups consider restoration of rights “a moral imperative.” She also said research has shown that felons who regain their constitutional rights are less likely to commit another crime.

Michael Edwards of Galax, who was convicted of a felony drug charge in the 1970s and couldn’t vote for more than three decades, said it took him four tries to get his rights restored. Now he helps other applicants navigate what he considers an unnecessarily time-consuming process of obtaining documentation from the courts that all time has been served and fines paid.

In 2002, Darrell Gooden of Richmond also was convicted of a felony drug offense. He said his application to have his rights restored was denied because of a speeding ticket, even though he paid the fine. He said he was told to “work on my driving record” and reapply. He said he’s waiting for the speeding violation to drop from his record.

“Every mistake I made, I paid my dues, paid the fine or did the time or whatever,” Gooden said in a telephone interview. “How long is a conviction going to hang over your head?”

Gooden, a truck driver, said he is a single dad raising three sons, ages 11, 13 and 15.

“They see me working hard, a couple of jobs at a time sometimes, and it seems I’m getting kicked right back where I started,” he said. “I want to show them the American dream is real.”

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(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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