Automatic for the People
Year after year, members of the General Assembly consider efforts to restore voting rights to nonviolent felons. But year after year, the effort is killed — usually by House Republicans. This year, the political dynamic shifted a bit as Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell decided he would move in a different direction.
Back in May, McDonnell announced he would automatically restore rights on an individual basis for individuals who meet certain criteria. Applicants must be nonviolent felons who have completed their sentence, probation or parole, paid all court costs, fines and restitution and have no pending felony charges. Beginning this week, nonviolent felons can apply online to start the process. Supporters of restoring voting rights cheered the move, although some criticized the governor for stopping short.
"If the governor wanted to, he could issue a blanket executive order that would grant all nonviolent felons their rights back today — no paperwork, no individual vetting, no need to receive a letter in the mail," said Hope Amezquita, legislative counsel and staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia. "But the way it works now, you have to wait until they review your background and then send you a letter giving you your rights back."
Although the governor says his process is an "automatic" restoration of voting rights, Amezquita disagrees. She says there's nothing "automatic" about sending an application and waiting for a background check. Still, longtime supporters of restoration of voting rights are cheering the governor's move, which became reality this week with the creation of the online application form. Considering the lingering opposition among Republicans in the House of Delegates, the possibility of passing a constitutional amendment in the General Assembly is remote. Meanwhile, McDonnell's effort to open up the process is expected to restore the voting rights of 10,000 nonviolent ex-felons by the end of his term.
"We're probably going to have to count ourselves as fortunate and go with what we can get," said former state Sen. Patsy Ticer (D-30), who was known for her advocacy on restoration of voting rights. "You go with half the loaf when you can't get the whole loaf."
Voters in Alexandria once had to travel great distances to vote, appearing in person and announcing selections viva voce — out loud before a judge and anyone else who happened to be in earshot. Since the advent of the secret ballot after the Civil War, voters have had a bit more privacy. This week, they gained something else: online access.
On Monday, the State Board of Elections and the Department of Motor Vehicles launched an online voter registration initiative. To complete the application process online, citizens must provide their DMV customer identifier number, which appears on driver's licenses or DMV-issued identification cards. Residents who don't have either of those documents can still apply online although they will be required to print and return the completed application to their local voter registrar's office. The new process was set in place by the General Assembly, which passed legislation authorizing online registration earlier this year.
"You get instant notification if you need to provide more information," said Susan Kellom, chairman of the Alexandria Electoral Board. "So it speeds everything up."
Did wealthy businessman Jonnie Williams try to use gifts and contributions to buy influence? The governor says Williams did not get any special favors for Star Scientific, the nutritional supplement company he heads that is fighting a tax bill. Nevertheless, McDonnell announced this week that he will be repaying $124,000 worth of loans to his wife and a business he and his sister own.
"This scandal has always raised questions about whether there is the potential special treatment for the wealthy in this state," said University of Mary Washington political science professor Stephen Farnsworth.
The issue has come up in the current campaign for governor, and many are calling for a $100 limit for gifts as well as new rules about disclosing gifts to family members. Some legislators are calling for a study, while others say that's merely a tactic to stall.
"In my view that's the fastest way to kill ethics reform," said Del. Rob Krupicka (D-45). "A study is simply a way to say you did something and then wait until the noise settles down and move on to something else."