- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 25, 2002

Virginia officials are considering amending the state constitution to make it easier for some convicted felons to vote after they have served their time but any changes would not be made until 2005 at the earliest.

The Virginia Constitution stipulates that all felons violent and nonviolent alike must go before the governor on a case-by-case basis asking to have their civil rights restored after they have served their time and completed their parole.

The Virginia State Crime Commission, which is composed of legislators, law enforcement officials and lawyers, has recommended that the General Assembly intervene and establish an alternate process for nonviolent offenders.

"Should someone who writes a bad check for $200, one penny more than what a misdemeanor offense would be, should that person be denied their civil rights? The answer is, I think, no," said state Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle, Virginia Beach Republican and a member of the commission.

Commission members are not worried about the specifics of what the alternative process would be at this time. Instead, they want to make sure the General Assembly is given the power to ask voters to make the change in the first place.

To change the constitution, the General Assembly first must pass the proposed change in the form of a referendum in two different legislative sessions. These sessions must be separated by a general election giving new members the chance to vote the referendum up or down. Then a statewide referendum would be held where voters would decide whether they wanted to change the constitution.

Under the proposal from the Virginia Crime Commission, members of the General Assembly would have to pass the referendum in 2003 and 2004, with the November 2003 election in between. The referendum would take place in November 2005.

A similar measure that included violent offenders was put before Virginia voters in 1982 and failed.

Virginia is one of 14 states that require felons to apply to regain their civil and voting rights. Most states automatically restore rights after a period of time following parole.

Members of the commission hope that by giving nonviolent felons a second channel of appeal, more citizens will take part in the electoral process once they have paid their debt to society.

In 1999, the last year for which records are available, only 26 out of more than 250,000 convicted felons applied to have their voting rights restored.

"There is some concern with the low number of requests that it might be a cumbersome process," said Delegate H. Morgan Griffith, Salem Republican and a member of the commission.

"There are a lot more people out there that desire to vote, but because the process is so lengthy they don't do it," said Delegate Brian Moran, Alexandria Democrat and chairman of the commission.

Gov. Mark R. Warner, a Democrat, also is reviewing ways to streamline the system, an issue on which he campaigned last year.

"He is awaiting a report from his legal counsel and he hopes to be able to act on it by the end of the summer," said Warner spokeswoman Ellen Qualls.

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