Richmond, VA - Today, the Governor’s office provided details of the new “automatic” restoration of rights program that the Office says will benefit up to 6,000 (and perhaps “thousands” more) disenfranchised Virginians before the October registration deadline for the fall election.   This means that more than 350,000 Virginians will remain disenfranchised under the Governor’s program despite fully completing their sentences.  The Governor’s announcement raises questions about early predictions from his Office that as many as 100,000 people ultimately would benefit from the new program.
“While the ACLU of Virginia continues to commend the Governor for the progress he has made in restoring voting rights when compared to his predecessors, the yardstick against which his efforts are being measured is one that sets the bar way too low to define the new program as a ‘success’,” said ACLU Executive Director,  Claire G. Gastañaga.  “This new policy can only have the purported fundamental impact described by the Governor at the press conference announcing the program if the Governor is willing to take much bolder action.  We continue to believe that the Governor could accelerate the process by granting blanket restoration to classes of people by executive order,” Gastañaga said.
“Particularly disturbing was the failure of the Governor to respond affirmatively to a request by the ALCU of Virginia and other advocates that he classify most drug offenses as non-violent just as they are classified under state sentencing rules,” added Hope Amezquita, Staff Attorney and Legislative Counsel for the ACLU of Virginia.  “While the ACLU commends the Governor for listening to concerns expressed about the surprise recategorization of breaking and entering and burglary following last month’s press conference, we continue to be profoundly disappointed that the Governor’s ‘automatic’ program will not extend to non-violent drug offenders,” Amezquita continued.   “Given the racial disparities in arrests and sentencing of drug offenders in Virginia documented in the ACLU’s recently issued report, “The War on Marijuana in Black and White: Billions of Dollars Wasted on Racially Biased Arrests,” the Governor’s failure to choose to classify drug offenses as non-violent will do nothing but continue the effects of racial discrimination in the criminal justice system,” Amezquita concluded.
If the Governor’s projections published today are correct, less than 10% of the original projected number of 100,000 and less than 2% of all persons now disenfranchised will have their rights restored in time for this year’s elections.  Moreover, today’s 6,000 person estimate includes the nearly 3,000 back-logged and previously denied applications already in house and in process.
In a letter sent to the Governor on June 25th, the ACLU of Virginia asked the Governor to ensure that implementation of the new “automatic” restoration of rights policy, would mean voting rights would be expeditiously restored to the broadest class of people possible.  The ACLU of Virginia also asked the Governor to remove barriers that confronted past applicants, such as the cost of attaching certified court documents, which he did.
While the ACLU of Virginia is grateful that the Governor has taken significant steps to reform the restoration of rights process for non-violent felons, the process is still far from “automatic” since individualized consideration of every person is still required and the Governor’s Office appears to be using almost the same criteria it used to judge whether to grant applications.