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Virginia Governor Warner Restores Felons' Voting Rights, Ignites Controversy

by Matthew T. Clarke

Then Virginia Governor Mark Warner restored the voting rights of 1,892 felons who had served their sentences, 1,110 of them in 2004. Opposition politicians have accused him of "rubber-stamping" the restoration process.
Virginia is one of only seven states that permanently disenfranchise felons. The others are Alabama, Florida, Kentucky and Mississippi. Seven others have lesser restrictions. The remaining states restore voting rights upon completion of the sentence.

About 1.7 million felons nationwide are denied their voting rights despite having completed their sentences. More than 200,000 of them are in Virginia. Warner's restoration of less than one percent of those persons' voting rights since he took office in 2002 prompted some members of the Virginia General Assembly, such as Bradley P. Marrs (R-Richmond), to complain.

In a letter to Warner, Marrs said he was very disturbed to learn of the "breakneck pace" of restoration, warning Warner not to make the process automatic. Warner heeded the warning and prior to leaving office did not restore any additional voting rights to felons.

Warner counters that he reviews each restoration carefully. His increased pace compared to previous governors is because he is addressing the 732-request backlog they left him and fulfilling his campaign promise to simplify the process. Prior to Warner's administration, felons had to fill out a 13-page form to request restoration. Warner simplified and shortened the form to one page for non-violent felons. Violent felons must continue to use the 13-page form. Warner has rejected 114 requests since taking office.

The restoration allows felons to vote and serve on juries. Some opponents of the speeded-up process, such as Delegate Bill Janis, are especially concerned about felons serving on juries. An especially large number of restoration petitions were received in 2004 ahead of the presidential election.

The three Virginia governors immediately preceding Warner restored between 120 and 200 felons' voting rights each year of their term. Non-violent felons in Virginia seeking restoration must wait three years after completion of their sentences before filing the petition; violent felons must wait five years.

Meanwhile, in Orleans Parish Prison, Louisiana, a record number of jail prisoners have registered to vote following a successful "get out the shut in" voter registration drive.

"It seems to me that we will probably receive the largest number of voters we've ever had from Parish Prison," said Orleans parish Registar of Voters Louis Keller.

Voice of the Ex-Offender (VOTE)--an organization founded by Noriss Henderson, who had been a state prisoner until 2003--began the registration drive in August, 2004. Henderson, who had become a paralegal during his 28-years at Angola, discovered that pre-trial detainees and misdemeanor prisoners could still vote, a fact not known to most prisoners. Henderson's research revealed that Orleans Parish had about 2,000 vote-eligible prisoners. He and volunteers, mostly ex-prisoners, got permission to start the registration drive and wound up with 700 applications from Orleans Parish Prison.

Then problems began. The registar's office demanded a certificate from the Sheriff's Office showing the prisoner was not a felon. This required a background check, something the sheriff's office couldn't complete before the election. The NAACP's Legal Defense Fund and the Right to Vote Campaign intervened to get the process back on track. When all persons convicted of a felony (including those on parole or probation) or released were eliminated, 137 valid registrations remained. They were sent absentee ballots.

Sources: Washington Times, New Orleans Times-Picayune, Washington Post.

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