Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine has granted voting rights to nearly 1,500 felons this year, bumping up the voter rolls ahead of next month’s presidential election and putting himself on pace to exceed the record-setting pattern of his predecessor.
During his four years as governor, Mark Warner, a Democrat now running for the U.S. Senate, restored voting rights to 3,414 ex-convicts in Virginia. That exceeded the combined total for all Virginia governors during the previous 20 years, according to the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based advocacy group.
Mr. Kaine, a Democrat in the third year of his term, had restored voting rights to 2,633 people with felony convictions as of Monday, including 1,445 this year.
“It’s not something that was just handed to him,” Kaine spokesman Gordon Hickey said. “He believes in it.”
Felons in 38 of the 50 states and the District automatically regain their voting rights once they have completed their prison terms or completed any parole. Two states - Maine and Vermont - permit convicts to vote while imprisoned.
Eight states - Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Mississippi, Nevada, Tennessee and Wyoming - deprive felons of their voting rights for life in certain circumstances such as the nature of the crime. Only in Virginia and Kentucky are all felons disenfranchised for life unless the governor restores those rights.
Voter registration in Virginia is of special significance this year because the presidential campaigns of Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama consider the state crucial for victory.
Though Virginia has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964, Democrats have been winning an increasing number of state elections. Polls in the past week have been divided: Three show Mr. Obama ahead by three to nine points and two show Mr. McCain ahead by three.
Mr. Kaine is a strong supporter of Mr. Obama, whose campaign has set a goal of registering tens of thousands of voters prior to the election. Virginia has recorded a net increase of more than 306,000 voters since the beginning of the year, according to statistics released Wednesday by the State Board of Elections.
Mr. Hickey said the secretary of the commonwealth announced earlier this year, as a “heads-up,” that felons in Virginia eligible for restoration must have their applications submitted by Aug. 1 in order to have their rights restored by Monday’s voter registration deadline.
The application-review process normally takes at least six months, according to the secretary’s Web site (www.soc.state.va.us). Felons who met the Aug. 1 deadline could see that process shortened to two months.
Mr. Hickey said the governor’s efforts this year are not targeted.
“It wasn’t like anybody solicited people to put these things in,” Mr. Hickey said.
Still, Republican lawmakers say efforts to register felons, including those by the American Civil Liberties Union, serve as a means to garner more votes for Mr. Obama.
Delegate Jeffrey M. Frederick, Prince William County Republican and chairman of the state party, said Mr. Kaine has a “prerogative” to restore felons’ voting rights and he thinks the governor “sincerely wants to give people their rights back so they can have them.”
Still, he said, “it certainly doesn’t hurt the Democrats to restore the rights of felons.”
Kent Willis, executive director of ACLU of Virginia, said his group began efforts to help felons regain voting rights long before this year’s election season.
The program “predates the election frenzy by a couple of years,” Mr. Willis said. “This is not something we launched related in any way, shape or form [to there being] a presidential campaign this year.”
A McCain spokeswoman declined to comment on the issue.
Obama spokesman Kevin Griffis said his campaign’s only concern is “to make sure that everyone who is eligible to vote has the opportunity in this historic election.”
“We´ve pursued that goal by aggressively working to register voters in every community across the commonwealth, and we´ll continue to do so until October 6,” he said.
About 115,000 Florida residents had their voting rights restored as of July after state rules were changed under Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican.
The Maryland General Assembly last year repealed its layered disenfranchisement law. The state now restores voting rights for all felons on completion of their sentences, and more than 52,000 people were granted voting rights as a result of the change.
In Virginia, nonviolent felons who have stayed out of trouble can apply for restoration through the secretary of the commonwealth’s office three years after completing their court obligations.
Mr. Hickey said applications are initially processed in the secretary’s office before going to the governor’s counsel, then to the governor, who makes a final decision.
Violent offenders - and those convicted of election fraud and drug offenses like manufacturing or distribution - face a lengthier post-sentence waiting period and application before they can have their rights restored.
Nonviolent offenders and those not convicted of certain drug offenses or election fraud also can petition a circuit court for approval of voting rights restoration, but the final decision still rests in the governor’s hands.
The increase in felon enfranchisements under Mr. Warner and Mr. Kaine also is related to an easier application method.
Mr. Warner streamlined the process of applying for the restoration of voting rights during his term, in part by reducing the required paperwork from 13 pages to one and decreasing the waiting period before applying to three years for most felons convicted of a nonviolent offense.
Ryan S. King, a spokesman for the Sentencing Project, said Mr. Warner gave priority to streamlining the restoration program and that Mr. Kaine has “maintained that same level of commitment to the process.”
Mr. Kaine “hasn’t changed the process at all, but he again has maintained that same level of commitment to the process,” Mr. King said.