- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 28, 2005

Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, who has returned voting rights to more felons than any other governor in state history, also leads the nation in restoring felons’ rights.

Mr. Warner, a Democrat, has restored the rights to 2,157 felons since taking office in January 2002 and has denied the requests of 134 felons.

Among governors of the 14 states that deny voting rights to felons, Mr. Warner has restored more voting rights than any other chief executive, according a report from the Sentencing Project, a District-based criminal-justice advocacy group.

“When you look at the number of recent restorations from other governors, there’s nobody who is really even close,” said Ryan King, research associate for the Sentencing Project. “Governor Warner has been at the forefront of really using his restoration powers responsibly and quite frequently.”

Several grass-roots organizations yesterday announced a campaign to aid 10,000 convicted Virginia felons who want to vote again. The coalition of groups, based in Virginia and in the District, will urge Mr. Warner to restore the right to vote to thousands of eligible petitioners before he leaves office in January.

“Right now, we’re making a major push,” said Sandra Brandt, one leader of the effort. “We see the opportunity with Governor Warner. It’s time — this is the time to really put some pressure on to try to get it done.”

Felons who have their rights restored are allowed to vote, run for and hold public office and serve on juries. They cannot possess a firearm or carry a concealed weapon.

In Virginia, a felon loses voting rights permanently unless the governor restores them. Only five other states also deny felons rights for life. Virginia is one of 14 states that do not automatically restore voting rights upon release from prison.

The voting rights coalition, called the Virginia Voter Restoration Initiative, has established a toll-free number — 800/388-6744 — for felons who want their rights restored and aims to get 10,000 felons to submit petitions to the governor by Aug. 31. If Mr. Warner grants the petitions, the felons will be eligible to vote in the November gubernatorial election.

“This is going to be a mammoth task,” said Ms. Brandt, who is executive director of Norfolk-based STEP-UP Inc., a nonprofit which helps freed felons get jobs. “We hope he can process them before he leaves office.”

Kevin Hall, a spokesman for Mr. Warner, said the governor reviews each petition that comes across his desk.

“Let’s see how many come in,” Mr. Hall said when asked whether the governor would restore rights to the 10,000 felons. “This isn’t an automatic process.”

There is a waiting period to petition the governor in Virginia. Felons convicted of nonviolent crimes must wait three years; those convicted of violent crimes must wait five years.

Ms. Brandt estimated that there are up to 700,000 Virginia felons eligible for restoration of rights.

Mr. Hall said the administration checks criminal records of the petitioners and verifies that any fines or restitution have been satisfied. He said many of the felons petition for their rights so they can apply for jobs or promotions.

Mr. King said Mr. Warner ranks at the top of the Sentencing Project’s list of governors who are restoring voting rights, above his peers in Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky and Nebraska — all of which deny felons voting rights for life.

Florida has restored the rights of 48,000 felons since 1998, but that state has a different process for granting petitions, Mr. King said.

Mr. Warner’s Republican predecessor, Gov. James S. Gilmore III, restored the rights of 238 felons. Sen. George Allen, Virginia Republican who served as governor before Mr. Gilmore, restored the rights of 460 ex-convicts.

Former Gov. Charles S. Robb, a Democrat who served from 1982 to 1986, restored rights to 1,180 persons.

One reason for the increase in approvals was a backlog of 732 requests — some more than four years old — which the governor inherited when he took office, administration officials said.

Mr. Hall said yesterday the backlog is now clear.

Since taking office, Mr. Warner has streamlined the process for felons who were convicted of nonviolent crimes by shortening the 13-page application form to only one page.

Felons who were convicted of violent crimes must submit several documents supporting their case and complete the 13-page application, the same process used during previous administrations.

Applications are also online now at www.commonwealth.virginia.gov/Clemency/clemency.cfm, Mr. Hall said.

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