RICHMOND -- Nonviolent felons can apply for restoration of their voting rights sooner after they complete their sentence and could get a faster answer -- potentially in 60 days -- under procedures outlined yesterday by Gov. Bob McDonnell.
The governor also added an item to the application for nonviolent felons that gives them the option to describe any community service or comparable service they want to bring to his attention.
It's a marked difference from an earlier proposal that the administration considered -- to require applicants to write a letter explaining the circumstances of their conviction, any community service, and why the restoration is justified.
Civil-rights groups had assailed that idea as a throwback to a time of literacy tests, which impeded voting.
"The announcement we're making today will provide for the fastest and fairest procedure for restoring people's civil rights in modern Virginia history," McDonnell said during a conference call with reporters. "I think it's a significant improvement and step forward in this process."
McDonnell imposed a 60-day deadline for his administration to act on an application once all of the required documentation is received from the applicant and the courts.
The governor also reduced to two years from three years the time nonviolent felons must wait to apply for restoration of rights, and he cut to one year from two years the waiting period for reapplication if a request is denied.
Since taking office in January, McDonnell has acted on about 195 applications from violent and nonviolent felons and granted restoration to about 175 of them, according to figures from the governor's office.
McDonnell set a July 15 deadline for action on the 650 applications left from the Kaine administration. Violent felons applying for restoration of rights must fill out a longer application and meet additional requirements.
McDonnell has received about 400 applications for restoration of rights since taking office.
The feasibility of a 60-day decision depends on how long it takes to gather information from the courts and other agencies, which can prolong the process.
To find ways to expedite that exchange, the administration created a working group with the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, court clerks, the attorney general's office, Virginia State Police, the Department of Corrections, and civil-rights groups.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia and the chairman of the black caucus said most of McDonnell's changes are in the right direction, but both groups favor an automatic restoration of rights. Virginia and Kentucky are the only states that leave the restoration approval solely with the governor.
"We feel like this is just the beginning of a real conversation with the governor about reforming the voter-restoration process in Virginia," said Kent Willis, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia.
"Even with these changes, Virginia will still rank last or next to last in the nation in restoration of voting rights, and there will still be more than 300,000 disenfranchised felons here."
Del. Kenneth C. Alexander, D-Norfolk, praised the shorter timelines but is leery of the added application item on community service. Secretary of the Commonwealth Janet Polarek said the additional item is optional and if left blank will not constitute an incomplete application.
"Why do you need to know the information if it's not going to weigh in on your decision?" Alexander asked.
The community-service item raises slight concern with one Richmond-area felon who has applied to have her voting rights restored. She included a voluntary letter with her application that explains her life since her conviction.
"I wanted them to know that I was more than what I'd done in'97," said the woman, who did not want to be identified as she tries to move on with her life. She was convicted of fraud.
The woman is concerned for other felons, though, who may lack a formal education, community-service opportunities or the writing skills to put a positive face on their progress.
"I'm concerned that's not going to help their case any."
RICHMOND - Gov. Bob McDonnell today announced streamlined procedures for nonviolent offenders to apply for restoration of voting rights.
McDonnell pledged a 60-day turnaround period on completed applications. He said the wait to apply for restoration of rights will be shorted from three years to two years.
Applicants will be allowed -- but not required -- to list a brief description of civic or community involvement. Applicants also will have the option of providing the sentencing order and proof of payment from the court.
McDonnell said that of the 650 applications left over from the Kaine administration, about 250 included all of the information needed to make a decision.
The Secretary of the Commonwealth's office has started processing those applications. McDonnell has set a July 15 deadline to finish the backlog and communicate the decisions to applicants.