Friday, November 20, 2009

RICHMOND | Civil rights organizations are asking Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine to sign an executive order restoring the rights of nearly 300,000 felons before he leaves office in January.

Virginia and Kentucky are the only two states that permanently strip felons of their civil rights, such as voting, serving on juries or holding public office. In Virginia, the power to restore those rights lies solely with the governor.

Mr. Kaine has restored rights to more than 4,000, felons, a greater number than under any other Virginia governor. He and former Gov. Mark Warner, a fellow Democrat, restored more altogether than the previous 16 administrations. The civil rights groups are worried that they will lose ground when Republican Robert F. McDonnell takes office.

They started a major push this week, including e-mail and letter-writing campaigns and planned rallies, to persuade Mr. Kaine to act. They also plan to ask President Obama and other states to pressure Mr. Kaine, who serves as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, to grant blanket restoration.

“What does he have to lose?” asked Janice “Jay” Johnson, chairman of the Virginia Organizing Project, one of the groups organizing the effort. “It would be different if there were a number of other states that hadn’t already made the changes.”

Mr. Kaine, a former civil rights lawyer, said he would consider an executive order, but that he felt the process had been streamlined enough to make rights restoration attainable for those who wanted it.

“If we are restoring the rights of those who are applying, should we restore the rights of those who haven’t even applied?” he said. “If they haven’t applied, they’re less interested in it, I guess.”

Those who are pushing for across-the-board restoration say many felons do not know that getting their rights restored is an option. Even though the application and waiting time was shortened under Mr. Warner, many remain intimidated by the process.

Harold Folley, 38, of Charlottesville, said he looked into the restoration of rights in 1999 after serving four years in prison for a drug violation, but it was too daunting. A decade later, he petitioned the governor and had his rights restored in May.

Last month was the first time he ever voted, something he called “empowering.”

“To be in that booth was like I was in charge,” he said. “I had the opportunity to voice my opinion.”

Mr. Folley now helps other felons with the process. The background check alone takes about six months.

In Virginia, nonviolent felons who are crime-free for three years and have paid their dues can petition the governor to have their rights restored. Violent felons or those convicted of drug-related crimes must wait five years.

Since 1997, 20 states have made it easier for felons to regain their voting rights. A bill to allow anyone released from prison to vote in federal elections is making its way through Congress. Iowa’s governor signed a similar executive order in 2005.

“This is a country that’s built on laws and freedoms and rights,” Ms. Johnson said. “At some point when you have lost your freedom and you have regained it, you should also regain your rights.”

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