Wednesday, 24 June 2015 00:00

McAuliffe widens felon voting rights restoration

Written by Travis Fain | Daily Press

Felons who've served their time and want their voting rights restored won't have to pay outstanding court costs anymore as part of the deal, Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced Tuesday.

The governor compared the long-standing requirement to a poll tax, as did the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, which had called for the change.

The legal system will still require people to pay these fines, fees and restitution, McAuliffe said, but failure to do so won't keep people from voting. With the announcement, the governor signed restorations for three people, including Eric Branch of Richmond.

Branch, who served 4 and a half years on a breaking and entering charge starting in 1988, said he didn't know he owed fees until he tried to get his rights restored. By then, fines and interest has mounted to some $20,000, the governor's office said.

McAuliffe's announcement was greeted with shouts and applause from the several dozen activists and others gathered for his Tuesday morning press conference. A few people shed tears. Branch thanked God.

"He uses people to accomplish his will," he said.

McAuliffe has made it a priority to restore voting rights, which the governor must do on a case-by-case basis in Virginia. They must wait several years until after their sentence to apply.

McAuliffe's predecessor, former Gov. Bob McDonnell, also pushed the cause, but neither has been able to win legislative approval for automatic restorations. The ACLU said Tuesday that it would push for a 2018 voter referendum to strip the voting ban from the state's constitution. The group supports the right to vote regardless of convictions.

McAuliffe said Tuesday that Virginia is among 12 states with the most restrictive rules, and that it has the fourth highest rate of disenfranchisement for felons. The governor said that doesn't help rehabilitate people, it forces them "into exile."

McAuliffe announced a number of other reforms last year, including shrinking a 13-page application form to one page. On Tuesday, he said he has restored voting rights to 8,250 people.

That's more in 17 months than any previous governor restored in his full four-year term, the governor's office said. Seventy-one percent of those people have registered to vote, his office said.

Many of the people who've lost their voting rights because of a criminal record are black. State Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, said Tuesday that "African-American enfranchisement is a national challenge," and that she was pleased with McAuliffe's moves.

"These changes move the Commonwealth forward at a time when voter participation is particularly important to the future economic prosperity of our minority communities," Locke said in a statement.

Link to original article from The Daily Press

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