As of July 15, 2013, felons convicted of non-violent offenses in Virginia will have their voting rights automatically restored after they’ve finished their sentences (including parole, probation, restitution and other court-ordered actions) and have no pending charges.
The qualifying non-violent convictions currently range from bank or welfare fraud to breaking and entering without a weapon and DUI. Drug possession is also considered non-violent as long as there was no conviction of intent to distribute.
In short, if money, property or an identity was stolen and no one was hurt or killed in the process, chances are the ex-felon can have his civil rights restored.
This will make Virginia one of 20 states that restore voting rights after the term of their incarceration (including parole and probation) has been served.
It’s estimated that 350,000 Virginians have been convicted of felonies, including non-violent offenses. Virginia is one of only four states that require ex-felons to file a petition to restore their voting rights. The new law only applies to non-violent felony convictions. All others must still use the petition process.
In all but two states (Maine and Vermont), those convicted of crimes lose their right to vote for at least some period of time. Twelve states permanently disenfranchise ex-offenders due to long waiting periods and extensive petitioning processes, requiring action by the governor or the legislature to restore voting rights.
Meaning many never get to vote again.
Historically, proponents of felony disenfranchisement believe people convicted of felonies have broken their contract with society and, therefore, should not be allowed to have the same level of access that law abiding citizens do. In our society of zero tolerance and justice at any cost, many states have enacted laws that have made it next to impossible for anyone convicted of a crime to vote, sometimes even if the convictions were for misdemeanors.
Yet we have a justice system that claims to allow people to do penance for their crimes. If they have done their time, should they continue to be punished?
A 2011 study by the Florida parole commission determined that in the two years where they had automatic restoration of voting rights (2009-2011), ex-offenders who had their civil rights restored had a recidivism rate – meaning they returned to prison or were otherwise supervised by the department of corrections – of only 11 percent. This was much lower to than the average of 33 percent for the remaining ex-offender population.
The report stated that allowing ex-offenders to regain their civil rights and vote made it easier to reintegrate into the community and were less likely to reoffend. They worked harder to become contributing members of society.
So why would states not want to restore their voting rights?
More than 5 million people have been disenfranchised due to convictions. That is almost 3 percent of the voting age population. A little over 7 percent of African-Americans cannot vote due to felon disenfranchisement.
Those are numbers that can change elections.
It should be noted that Florida’s governor Rick Scott rescinded the automatic restoration of voting rights in 2011. It’s estimated that 23% of the black population in Florida is disenfranchised due to felony convictions.
It’s still unclear how smooth the path to restoring the civil rights of the ex-offenders will be, due to logistics. Nevertheless, restoring voting rights for ex-offenders was a key initiative for Gov. Bob McDonnell, who has a little less than a year left in his last term and this is a considered a bright spot in an otherwise controversial term .
Of course, with their rights restored, the path to voting is not without obstacles. They still have to comply with Virginia’s voter suppression bill that was signed into law by Gov. McDonnell in March of this year, requiring an ID in order to vote — even if you’re not a convicted felon.