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The issue often breaks along party lines. Democratic proposals to automatically restore voting rights to nonviolent felons routinely die in the Virginia General Assembly.

It became a thorny issue for Republican presidential candidates to navigate recently as well.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania fumed at former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney during a GOP presidential debate after an ad funded by a super PAC supporting Mr. Romney implied that Mr. Santorum, who supports restoring rights to convicted criminals who have served their time, wanted to extend the same rights to those still imprisoned.

Delegate Gregory D. Habeeb, Salem Republican, has introduced a bill this year to automatically restore voting rights to nonviolent felons, except those convicted of felony drug or election fraud crimes.

He called Mr. McDonnell the “best governor in my lifetime” on the issue.

“This is a very conservative governor with a law-enforcement background acknowledging the importance of restoring rights of a subset of people at such an expedited clip,” he said. “I’m very pleased to have a conservative Republican governor actually have a re-entry agenda. It should be a conservative Republican concept that we’re talking about, but it hasn’t been one that we’ve talked about.”

But Mr. McDonnell has.

When Mr. Gilmore was in office and Mr. McDonnell was a delegate from Virginia Beach in private practice, he was hired to guide a client through the restoration-of-rights process. Eighteen months later, his client was denied, but his interest in reforming the process did not wane.

In 2010, Mr. McDonnell appointed the state’s first statewide prisoner re-entry coordinator and created the Virginia Prisoner and Juvenile Offender Re-Entry Council in a bid to coordinate state efforts to try to combat recidivism.

“We’ve got every opportunity to help people achieve success,” he said. “If they don’t, we’ve got a prison cell for them. But if they want to have a chance to succeed, we’re [going to] have tools in place to help them.”

Legislation he signed into law last year included a measure to allow inmate labor to be used at rest stops in the state, another to require the Department of Corrections to establish a personal trust account for each inmate, and another that allows prisoner work forces to assist with maintaining privately owned, abandoned cemeteries.

Regarding Mr. Habeeb’s bill and other automatic restoration-of-rights proposals, a spokeswoman for Mr. McDonnell said he would review any legislation that comes to his desk.

Mr. Habeeb, a lawyer by trade, said his own advocacy comes in part from his experience working with children whose parents had been incarcerated, and wanting them to have the same opportunity as his three children — to accompany their father to the polls.

“It’s important to me when I go vote that I can take my kids with me,” he said. “I think it does great damage to prevent a father from being able to do that with his kids.”