Groups Ask Governor to Issue Executive Order Restoring Voting Rights of Virginians with Felony Convictions

Affiliate: ACLU of Virginia
January 5, 2010 12:00 am

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Virginia’s counterproductive and unfair Jim Crow law lags behind 48 other states


Richmond, VA. –Ten Virginia civil rights and faith-based groups have joined together to ask Governor Tim Kaine to issue an executive order that would restore voting rights to most or all of Virginia’s 300,000 individuals who are being denied the right to vote because of a felony conviction, and to put in place a process for automatically restoring rights to others who complete their sentences in the future.

The letter sent earlier today is signed by the following organizations: NAACP Virginia State Conference, Virginia League of Women Voters, Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, Virginia Poverty Law Center, Virginia Organizing Project, STEP-UP, Incorporated, Virginia CURE, The Northern Virginia Coalition, American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, and, The Rutherford Institute.

Many other Virginia organizations, including the Virginia Catholic Conference, the Virginia Conference United Methodist Church, the Old Dominion Bar Association and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. State Social Action Task Force, have also called for reform of Virginia’s felon disfranchisement law.

Only Virginia and Kentucky permanently disenfranchise all felons upon conviction, requiring an act of the Governor to restore voting rights. Of the forty-eight other states, two never remove voting rights and most automatically restore rights upon completion of prison sentence, parole or probation.

Governor Kaine has been asked numerous times during his tenure as Governor to take action to modernize Virginia’s voter restoration procedures. Advocates are hopeful the he will follow the lead of the Democratic Governor of Iowa and Republican Governor of Florida, both of whom took executive action in the last few years to reform their state’s felon disfranchisement policies.

Most of the groups signing today’s letter were present at a December 2 meeting with the Governor’s top staff to ask for the issuance an executive order, and most have been asking the Governor to take action to reform Virginia’s disfranchisement law since taking office. While meetings with the Governor and his staff have led to promising conversations about felon disfranchisement reform in recent weeks, the Governor has not yet stated he will act before leaving office.

Under the Virginia Constitution, only the Governor has the power to restore voting rights. In practice that has been accomplished through a cumbersome application process resulting in a few thousand individuals having their rights restored during the term of recent governors. Scholars, however, say the Governor of Virginia, like those in other states with similar constitutional provisions, has the power to issue a blanket restoration order that would grant voting rights to everyone who has lost them.

While many states instituted permanent felon disfranchisement during Jim Crow, in recent years all but Virginia and Kentucky have reformed their disfranchisement laws. Studies indicate that felons who vote are half as likely to be re-arrested as those who do not, a finding that has caused pragmatists from across political party and ideological lines to support felon disfranchisement reform

“Every state in the nation, except Virginia and Kentucky, has figured out how to rid itself of this shameful and counterproductive legacy of Jim Crow,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “In states where legislators have dragged their feet, governors have acted through executive orders, and that’s what we’re asking Tim Kaine to do before he leaves office.”

“Governor Kaine has the opportunity to make history and reverse one of the last vestiges of Jim Crow segregation. It is time Virginia joins the ranks of the 48 other states who restore voting rights for former felons when they have paid their debt to society. The Governor is getting thousands of calls in favor of restoration of rights because people are outraged that we still have this archaic policy on the books. We have met with Governor Kaine’s staff and have provided ample evidence that he has the power to sign a Executive Order to restore voting rights for former felons. Now, the question is simply: ‘Will he do the right thing?'” said Janice “Jay” Johnson, Chairperson of the Virginia Organizing Project.

“There is nothing more sacred than the right to vote,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “When someone has paid their debt to society, that right should be restored.”

Documents and references

A copy of the letter to the Governor follows. For more information on felon disenfranchisement in Virginia including editorials and columns supporting reform of the law and recent legislative history, visit For a comparison of Virginia with other states visit

January 5, 2010

The Honorable Timothy M. Kaine
Governor of Virginia
Patrick Henry Building
1111 E. Broad Street
Richmond VA 23219

Dear Governor Kaine:

We write to urge you to issue an executive order that will both restore voting rights for most or all felons in Virginia who have completed their sentences and establish a process by which their voting rights will be automatically restored to those who complete their sentences in the future.

Once as much a part of Jim Crow as poll taxes and literacy tests, felon disenfranchisement is no longer tolerated in the United States. Indeed, only Virginia and Kentucky still permanently disenfranchise all felons, requiring an act of the Governor to restore voting rights.

Virginia’s outdated practice has left unable to vote approximately 300,000 Virginians who have completed their sentences. These individuals live in our communities and pay taxes, and most have families, jobs and homes, and participate in civic, religious and social organizations.

Because former felons who do not vote are twice as likely to be re-arrested as those who do, felon disfranchisement is a counterproductive policy. Allowing individuals to vote who have repaid their debt to society makes better citizens and reduces the burden on taxpayers to support the criminal justice system.

Virginia is ready to join the 48 other states that either never remove voting rights or automatically restore voting rights for some or all felons. A 2006 survey shows that more than 60% of Virginia’s voters favor reform of Virginia’s felon disfranchisement law. In addition, most of Virginia’s major newspapers have called for felon disenfranchisement reform. This includes the Roanoke Times, Daily Press, Virginian-Pilot, Washington Post and the Staunton News Leader. We do not know of any newspaper that opposes reform.

In the last few years the Governor of Iowa, a Democrat, and the Governor of Florida, a Republican, have issued executive orders modernizing their state’s felon disfranchisement policies. If Kentucky reforms its felon disfranchisement law, Virginia will be the last state in the nation still clinging to this shameful, anachronistic, and ineffective policy.

Most of us have met with you or your staff in recent weeks to discuss an executive order. We appreciate the numerous opportunities you have afforded us to engage in this important dialogue, and we understand that you are concerned about how an executive order would be implemented in Virginia.

Today we ask you to look beyond whatever minor obstacles lie before you and to act on the principles that have guided you in your distinguished career as an elected official by issuing an executive order automatically restoring voting rights for all or most of Virginia’s former felons once they have completed their sentences, parole or probation.

We thank you for you attention to this important matter.

NAACP Virginia State Conference
League of Women Voters of Virginia
Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy
Virginia Poverty Law Center
Northern Virginia Coalition
STEP-UP, Incorporated
Virginia CURE
Virginia Organizing Project
Rutherford Institute
ACLU of Virginia

Cc: Mark Rubin, Counsel to the Governor
Deputy Secretary Bernie Henderson

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