The results of a new report on restoring voter rights to nonviolent felons in Virginia has prompted Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli — a vocal opponent of the practice — to have a change of heart.
Virginia is one of only a few states that don’t automatically restore the rights of nonviolent felons. According to the state's constitution, felons can only regain their voting rights by sending a written request to the governor.
The report, delivered by a bipartisan Rights Restoration Advisory Committee that Cuccinelli commissioned in March, suggests the governor could "consider new approaches to the restoration of rights … so long as the governor’s action to remove political disabilities continues to be made on an individualized basis,” the report reads.
The governor, for instance, could appoint someone to lead a statewide agency to perform outreach and educational efforts to recruit eligible candidates to apply, coordinate the help of faith-based groups, process the applications and make recommendations to the governor, leaving the final decision to his or her discretion. The committee did not endorse any one approach over another.
Neither the governor nor the General Assembly can automatically create a process to restore a felon’s rights through an executive order, as the Virginia Constitution would have to be amended by popular vote. Attempts to change the law have been unsuccessful – all of the 13 bills introduced during this year’s General Assembly session died in committee.
Cuccinelli, the Republican candidate for Virginia's gubenatorial elections this year, has long been an opponent of the practice, voting against restoration amendments in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2007 and 2009, during his time in the Virginia Senate.
But he told The Washington Post this week he wanted to address restoration rights now for fear that future governors might let it fall by the wayside.
Gov. Bob McDonnell pledged in 2010 to shorten the time felons are required to wait before submitting an application and also make restoration decisions more quickly. He's delivered on both, cutting the wait time for felons from three years to two after release and making decisions no longer than 60 days after the applications are filed.
After delivering the report Tuesday, Cuccinelli said he attributed his change in opinion to “felony creep,” the increase of some low-level offenses from misdemeanors to felonies in recent years.
“We have to be tough on crime, but part of a successful criminal justice system includes rehabilitation and reentry into society,” Cuccinelli said in his remarks.
The Post reported Cuccinelli’s experience as a lawyer with clients who wanted their rights restored helped change his mind.
“I’ve had people who wanted to get rights restored … you go through the processes and … it can be very, very frustrating,” he told the Post. “It’s a real human side of it for me.”
Cuccinelli has already come under fire from Democrats who say his change of heart is “flip-flopping.”
Virginia Sen. Don McEachin (D-Henrico), a supporter of rights restoration, said Cuccinelli was simply posturing now that he was up for election.
“It has become convenient for him to suddenly do an about face on this issue,” McEachin said Wednesday. “But to the Virginians who made a mistake, served their time, are productive citizens of the Commonwealth, but wait amidst a sea of red tape for their government to declare them full citizens again, this issue is personal, and should not be a matter of political expediency.”
McDonnell is expected to address the report Wednesday.