Thursday, January 12, 2006

RICHMOND — Gov. Mark Warner, whose last day as Virginia’s chief executive is tomorrow, ends his four-year term with the distinction of having restored the voting rights of 3,414 felons — more than any other governor in state history and far ahead of the totals in 12 of the 13 other states that deny convicts the right to vote.

“We have restored more voting rights than four previous governors combined,” Mr. Warner told The Washington Times. “We want to encourage people to [apply] who have served their time and had some ensuing period where they had stayed out of trouble. We want to reintegrate them fully into society, and part of that means getting your voting rights back.”

Most of the restorations were granted to nonviolent offenders.

Mr. Warner, a Democrat with presidential ambitions, has also denied 195 petitions.

With just hours left in the outgoing governor’s term, several political action groups, including, are urging Mr. Warner to grant blanket restorations to more than 240,000 felons — a request the governor will not grant, although he has not issued a formal response.

Warner spokeswoman Ellen Qualls questioned the accuracy of the 240,000 figure. She said it is not clear how the group reached that number because it is difficult to track the number of felons who have not gotten their rights restored who are still in Virginia.

Gov.-elect Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat who will take office tomorrow, supports the streamlined petition process started by his predecessor and intends to follow in Mr. Warner’s footsteps, said press secretary Kevin Hall.

Mr. Hall, former deputy press secretary for Mr. Warner, noted that Mr. Warner cleared a 732-application backlog.

“When we came in, there were boxes of unopened requests,” he said.

Most states automatically grant felons voting rights upon completion of their sentence. There are 14 states that deny felons the right to vote, and Virginia is one of six states — the others are Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky and Nebraska — that permanently bar felons from voting, holding public office and serving on juries.

In Virginia, felons must petition the governor after a waiting period that ranges from three to five years to have those rights restored. Even if the rights are granted, the ex-convicts cannot possess a firearm or carry a concealed weapon.

Virginia has restored the rights to at least 6,480 felons since 1982.

Republican political strategist Chris LaCivita said he was not surprised that Mr. Warner’s total was higher than previous governors.

“Of course it is, he’s a liberal,” said Mr. LaCivita, who has run campaigns for former Virginia Gov. George Allen, now the state’s junior Republican senator.

Mr. LaCivita said the numbers will “clearly” be used against Mr. Warner during a presidential campaign.

Political scientists and researchers said felons are disproportionately black and tend to vote Democratic.

“Felony disenfranchisement definitely does have racial undertones,” said Sabrina Williams, a spokeswoman for the Advancement Project, a national civil liberties group petitioning Mr. Warner to take further action.

Miss Williams said 52 percent of the 240,000 eligible for rights restoration are black, and one in six black Virginians cannot vote because of a felony.

“Felony disenfranchisement laws across the board have vestiges in slavery, and it’s all about power,” she said. “It’s time to eliminate this Jim Crow-era scheme and give blanket restoration.”

Efforts to restore rights automatically in Virginia and other states have been supported largely by Democrats, but President Bush signed into law a Texas initiative to automatically restore rights to felons when he was governor.

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

Florida has restored the rights of 48,000 felons since 1998, but that state has a different process for granting petitions, said Ryan King, a research associate for the Sentencing Project, a District-based criminal-justice advocacy group.

The Advancement Project earlier this week released a poll of 500 likely voters showing six in 10 Virginians favor restoration of rights to felons who have served their full sentence.

Miss Williams noted that the group plans to ask Mr. Kaine to grant the blanket restoration.

“It’s the right thing to do,” she said. “These are not rapists and murderers, not all of them. You can be a felon for something as small as writing a bad check.”

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