Virginians who have been convicted of violent felonies have to wait at least five years after getting out of prison before they can apply to regain the right to vote. But that’s about to change, thanks to a decision announced by Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) on Friday morning.
McAuliffe will reduce the mandatory waiting period to three years, he said. And he’ll end the state’s long-standing practice of classifying drug crimes as violent felonies, allowing people who have been convicted of nonviolent drug offenses to regain their voting rights immediately after they’ve finished serving their time.
In Virginia, only the governor can restore voting rights to people who have been convicted of violent felonies. The state is one of 11 where people who have been convicted of at least some crimes are permanently deprived of the right to vote, unless the government of that state grants an exemption to a specific individual, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a New York-based group that advocates for criminal justice reforms.
The other states include Florida, Iowa and Arizona. Altogether, nearly 6 million Americans are banned from the ballot box because of prior felony convictions, according to the group.
And about 350,000 of them live in Virginia, according to the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization that applauded McAuliffe's decision.
“Once a citizen has done time and repaid his or her debt to society, they should not be deprived of their fundamental right to vote,” Advancement Project Co-Director Judith Browne Dianis said in a statement following the announcement.
“As a result of today’s decision, more people will be able to fully rejoin their communities and stand alongside their neighbors at the voting booth,” she noted, adding, “It’s particularly encouraging that Gov. McAuliffe has reclassified all drug offenses as non-violent, as the arrest rates for these crimes disproportionately impact people of color due to the unjust War on Drugs. With one in five African-American adults in Virginia disenfranchised because of a felony conviction, we hope today’s decision will jumpstart the process of dismantling this staggering injustice.”