Credit Where Credit’s Due
It’s been an eventful last day for the hard cause of restoration of rights, both in Virginia and in Florida. Credit where credit is due: Governor Bob McDonnell has bucked his party in restoring rights on pace with his Democratic predecessors. This isn’t dramatic reform. But his actions deserve some credit.
Virginia has one of the nation’s most restrictive systems for ex-offenders, who must apply to regain their right to vote. I’ve always felt this is bad public policy because it creates rather than resolves division. If you want former criminals to have more accountability and responsibility in society, why prevent them from voting? It makes no sense.
There is also the simple issue of race. This law originated in racial animus, designed to prevent African-Americans from voting in Virginia’s shameful Jim Crow era, as I wrote about here. Today, it’s estimated that 20% of Virginia’s African-American men cannot vote.
(We’ll be covering this in more depth soon with a new entry in our Virginia Stories about one Virginia reformer with a great story. Stay tuned.)
I disagree with Governor Bob McDonnell on many matters of policy and ideology. Yet I always felt that he might take a more constructive approach to this hard issue.
When I was working with a group of other Virginia activists on this issue in 2009, before McDonnell took office, I predicted that he might well be more progressive on the issue than many thought.
While I haven’t talked with him about it, my guess is that McDonnell has a redemptive view of sinners, and I would imagine he sees the value of increasing accountability in society.
So it’s a pleasant surprise to read the news that, in its first year, the McDonnell administration restored the rights of over 1,100 ex-offenders. Yesterday, McDonnell said, “I promised when I ran that we’d have the fastest and fairest civil-rights restoration process in modern history. I think we’ve accomplished that.”
This is going to put McDonnell on pace to match the number of restorations granted by Governor Kaine and Governor Warner. As a Republican, McDonnell deserves special credit for some political courage for bucking the tide in his own Republican Party.
For just today, there’s news that Republicans in Florida have rammed through a repeal of former Governor Charlie Crist’s brave 2007 decision to allow more than 100,000 ex-offenders who had completed their sentences to vote. Florida’s new Governor, Rick Scott, and three fellow Republican officials have moved the goalposts. Now, even nonviolent offenders will have to wait five years after their sentences have concluded to apply.
We still need to improve the policy in Virginia. As a counselor to Governor Warner, I know the application process creates a lot of expense and headache for the governor’s office. Better to have a transparent, automatic process in place with some clear standards (perhaps treating nonviolent offenders and violent ones differently).
Governor McDonnell’s record shows that there is promise for a bipartisan solution, even in Virginia. So, credit where credit is due—and a recognition that this should be a beginning, rather than an end.