|In 1998 I committed a burglary - a non-violent, non-drug related crime for which I served two years and two months in prison. Since that time I have completed probation, paid all my fines, held steady jobs, not been convicted of any other crimes, volunteered on numerous Democratic campaigns in Virginia (starting with Kaine for Governor), registered hundreds of voters and earned my associate's degree. Through my work in voter registration, I learned about how people like myself can get their rights restored. I filled out the Application for Restoration of Rights and submitted it along with my criminal records. That December, I received a letter telling me the application was denied, with no explanation. There is a two-year waiting period to reapply and there is no appeals process.
Over the past year I've been looking for other avenues to get my rights restored, since the decision is ultimately up to the Governor and not the Secretary of the Commonwealth. I started working with a coalition of groups and activists (restoreourvote.org) concerned with restoring rights to the 300,000 disenfranchised convicted felons in Virginia. Finally on December 16, 2009 I received an email from Bernard Henderson, Senior Deputy Secretary of the Commonwealth. Here is an excerpt:
It is the policy of the Office of the Governor not to provide specific reasons why the Governor exercises his discretion not to grant requests for restoration of rights and not to reconsider decisions when requests are not granted.
However, one requirement is that applicants have no convictions for violations of the law for the three or five years (depending upon the nature of the felony) immediately prior to applying for restoration of rights. This includes moving violations, such as speeding.
Here's the funny thing: the Application for Restoration of Rights requires that you have no "misdemeanors or pending convictions" three years before the application. Traffic tickets, such as the ones I have, are not misdemeanors. That means the requirement stated above is an additional, secret policy of the Governor's office (not revealed until now) to make it even harder for people to get their rights restored. Is it illegal? No. The Governor can arbitrarily set up any rules he wants, since the Jim Crow laws enshrined in the 1901 Virginia Constitution give him sole discretion to restore rights as he sees fit. Is it immoral? Yes! Not only is there no justification for this practice, the Governor has the complete power to overturn the unfair requirements for restoration. What's more, there is nothing stopping him from issuing an Executive Order that restores rights to all ex-felons in Virginia who have completed the terms of their sentences.
Tim Kaine needs to hear from YOU before he leaves office on January 16, 2010. You can call 804-786-2211 or email his office, visit this website to have a letter sent, write a letter to the editor of a local paper in Virginia, or join me in this urgent push to advocate for change.
At the very least, Governor Kaine should stop the practice of denying applicants who have traffic tickets. The very best he can do is issue a blanket restoration of rights to all Virginia ex-felons. Governor Kaine, who I helped get elected, who is the Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, a civil rights lawyer and a man of faith, should believe in fundamental rights and the concept of redemption. Unfortunately he seems unwilling to take this step to undo Virginia's regressive policy. Yes, Governor-Elect McDonnell could try to overturn it. So what? Which side of history do you want to be on? Kentucky, or the rest of the United States that have more sensible processes for ex-felons to regain their voting rights? What possible legal or political drawback is there to setting up a precedent by which convicted felons, who have fulfilled all their obligations and stayed out of trouble for over three years, can become full citizens again?
P.S. This story first broke on Not Lary Sabato where I am now being subjected to personal attacks from commentators. They are even scouring my record, which I have no problem with as long as it's accurately represented. I don't have any misdemeanor convictions since 1998.