Virginia Becomes Latest State to Restore Voting Rights to Felons

On April 22, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed an executive order that restores the voting and civil rights of more than 200,000 convicted felons.  The order applies to people who have completed their sentence, including any supervised release, parole or probation requirements.  

In a statement, Gov. McAuliffe said, "Throughout my administration my team and I have operated on a simple principle: Virginians who have served their time and reentered society should do so as full citizens of our Commonwealth and country,” said Governor McAuliffe. “Too often in both our distant and recent history, politicians have used their authority to restrict peoples’ ability to participate in our democracy."

The order does not automatically restore the rights for all ex-offenders, and the governor will have to sign additional orders on a monthly basis going forward.  

In addition to regaining the right to vote, people covered under the order also regain the right to run for office, serve on a jury, and serve as a notary public. 

Gov. McAuliffe's order is the third executive action taken to restore voting rights to certain offenders in the Commonwealth.  The Virginia Constitution prohibits people with a felony conviction from voting unless their rights have been restored by the governor. Former Gov. Bob McDonnell allowed non-violent felons to have their voting rights restored at the end of their sentence, while others could apply for restoration after a five-year waiting period. In 2014, Gov. McAuliffe restored voting rights to people who have completed their sentences for drug offenses and reduced the waiting period for other violent felons to three years.

Nationwide, almost six million Americans are currently prohibited from voting because of a past felony offense, according to the Sentencing Project. This includes 1 in 13 African-American men nationwide, a far higher rate than for other groups. 

State laws vary considerably on when—and if—felons can regain their voting rights. In two states, Maine and Vermont, felons never lose their right to vote, even while incarcerated. Fourteen states plus the District of Columbia restore voting rights upon release from prison, allowing people on parole and probation to vote.  Four states restore voting rights to people who have completed their prison term and parole, allowing probationers to vote.  Twenty states restore voting rights to people who have completed their sentence, including parole and probation.  In seven states, people convicted of certain crimes, such as murder, sex offenses, or election fraud, do not automatically regain their rights.   Finally, in three states - Florida, Iowa, and Kentucky - felons do not have their voting rights automatically restored, but instead must individually petition the government. 

According to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, over the past two decades, more than 20 states have made it easier for former prisoners to vote, either by making the process easier and more accessible, reducing waiting times, or by allowing felons to regain their rights earlier in the reentry process. This has been done through a combination of legislative and executive actions.

In 2015, the Maryland General Assembly voted to restore the right to vote to felons when they left prison, rather than when they completed their parole or probation periods. Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed the bill, saying in a letter to legislators that the current law “achieves the proper balance between repayment of obligations to society for a felony conviction and the restoration of the various restricted rights.” In 2016, the General Assembly voted to override the veto, restoring voting rights to more than 40,000 people.

Also in 2015, the Wyoming Legislature approved legislation that automatically restores voting rights for some nonviolent offenders. 

Last November before leaving office, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear signed an executive order that automatically restored the vote to right and hold public office to approximately 140,000 nonviolent felons who have completed their sentences.  Kentucky is one of just three states—with Florida and Iowa—that imposes lifetime voting bans on felons, unless they receive clemency from the governor.  This order was later suspended by incoming Gov. Matt Bevin, who argued that such a change should be made by the legislature.  

"While I have been a vocal supporter of the restoration of rights,” Gov. Matt Bevin said in announcing the order, “it is an issue that must be addressed through the legislature and by the will of the people."

In 2016, legislation to amend the state Constitution to automatically restore voting rights passed the Kentucky House by a large margin, but later stalled in the Senate.  The Senate approved a bill that would have placed the issue on the ballot for voters to decide.  The Legislature did pass a bill that will make it easier for people convicted of certain felonies to have their records expunged and have their voting rights restored.  It will allow felons the opportunity to submit for expungement five years after probation or the end of their sentence, whichever is the longest.