Restoration of Voting Rights for Felons

September 22, 2008 | | Comments Off on Restoration of Voting Rights for Felons

As the 2008 presidential election rapidly approaches many Americans are focused on deciding which candidate to vote for. The right to vote is one that many of us take for granted, but there are about 5.3 million Americans who are disenfranchised due to felony convictions. There is a high degree of disenfranchisement on the national level, but the disenfranchisement statistics and practices in Virginia are especially disturbing.

Virginia and Kentucky are the only states in which restoration of rights for felons is completely contingent upon the governor’s approval of the felon’s restoration application. Prior to Governor Warner, all felons in Virginia had to wait seven years before applying to have their rights restored. Warner changed the law, creating two separate criteria based on whether the felony conviction was violent or non- violent. Governor Warner restored the rights of 4,000 people while he was in office, in contrast, his successor governor Kaine, according to a lecture by Sandra Brandt, has granted restoration rights to very few people.

The changes Governor Warner made are still in place today. Non- violent felony offenders must wait three years after completion of sentence, probation, and payment of all fines and court costs before applying to have their rights restored. The application itself is only two pages (PDF) and is rather straightforward. It lists qualifications necessary to apply and asks for basic information such as name, address, offense, and dates of sentencing and conviction (Restoration of Rights Application). Non- violent offenders also have the option of applying to the circuit court in their locality. The court holds a hearing and based on its determination of the offenders “civil responsibility”, makes a recommendation to the governor.

Violent felony offenders must wait five years after completion of sentence, probation, and payment of all fines and court costs in order to be eligible to apply to have their rights resorted. The violent offender application is twelve pages long. It explains the eligibility requirements and asks for basic information. It also requires three reference letters (which cannot be from a family member), a letter from the offender’s most recent probation or parole officer, a copy of the pre-sentencing or post-sentencing report, and a personal letter to the governor explaining the offense committed.

Paying off court costs and fines can be a rather difficult task for a felon who does not have a high paying job. The whole restoration process usually takes at least six months. After correctly filling out the application and waiting six months for the application to be reviewed, one would expect his or her rights to be automatically restored; however, this is not the case. The governor has total discretion to deny or restore the applicant’s rights. If the application is denied for any reason, that applicant must wait another two years before reapplying.

Each state is free to adopt offender rights restoration laws. Virginia has one of the most difficult processes, causing the state to disenfranchise citizens at an alarming rate in comparison to other states. In Maryland, voting rights are automatically restored after the completion of the sentence for all first time offenders, unless they are convicted of an election crime. In D.C, rights are automatically restored after the completion of the sentence, and in Vermont the right to vote is not denied because of a felony conviction.

In 2004, 377,847 people in Virginia were disenfranchised, which amounts to about 6.76% of the state’s population of voting age citizens. This is a large percentage of disenfranchised citizens, when compared to the percentages of disenfranchised citizens in other states. Only 1.16% of North Carolina’s and 2.12% of Tennessee’s voting age populations are disenfranchised. Virginia even has more people disenfranchised than Kentucky, which has felon voting rights restrictions comparable to those of Virginia. In Kentucky, 5.97% of the voting age population is disenfranchised. The felon disenfranchisement laws in Virginia disproportionately affect African Americans. A little over 50% of the disenfranchised population in 2004 was African American. Sixteen percent of African Americans in Virginia cannot vote because of a felony conviction, and 25% of Black men cannot vote due to a felony conviction. The number of African Americans disenfranchised is extremely high, considering that African Americans only make up about 20% of Virginia’s total population.

Voting rights restrictions have not always been so restrictive. Many disenfranchisement laws were implemented after the 15th Amendment, giving black men the right to vote, was passed. During the reconstruction era, laws were created to intentionally disenfranchise and limit the voting ability of minority’s because of the fear that minority voters would change the balance of power among different ethnic groups. In the south, democrats were concerned that African American voters would destroy their hold on southern politics. Today, the presence of a large minority prison population increases the likelihood that harsh voting restriction laws will be instituted by a state.

The 14th Amendment established that states are prohibited from disenfranchising people for any reason other than commission of a rebellion or another crime. According to the amendment, states that disobey that rule lose representation in congress. The composer’s of the 14th Amendment intended to disenfranchise people when they committed a crime. This does not necessarily imply that that a criminal’s right to vote should remain restricted even after they have paid their debt to society. Our society is based on the concept of democracy and people exercising their right to choose their leaders, but the United States has more widespread and broad felon disenfranchisement laws than any other contemporary democracy.

Virginia legislators have attempted to amend laws restricting voting rights of felons. Yvonne Miller introduced SJ7, which was a constitutional amendment to restore the rights of felons. It would allow the general assembly to restore the rights of people convicted of non-violent felonies, who completed their sentences. The amendment would not interfere with the governor’s right to restore the rights of felons; it just would provide an alternative means of restoration by the general assembly through general law. Despite the restrictive laws and high rates of disenfranchisement in Virginia, there is good news, all non- violent offenders who filled out a restoration application and turned it into Governor Kaine by August 1st, are guaranteed to have their rights resorted before the 2008 presidential election (Lecture).

The Supreme Court in Reynolds v. Smith (1964) stated that “the essence of a democratic society is citizenship and the right to vote.”

Felons who have served their time in prison are still paying for their crimes by being excluded from fully enjoying their rights as citizens. Felons go to prison to be punished, why we are still punishing people by limiting their rights after they have served their time?

Interested in Voting Rights? W&M ACS, BLSA, and ACLU are hosting an event on October 1, 2008 on Voter Protection in the Upcoming Election. Stay tuned for details.

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