Convicted ex-offenders living in Virginia now have one less barrier standing between them and the voting booth. On Tuesday, June 23, 2015, governor Terry McAuliffe (D) announced that the state will no longer require ex-felons to pay outstanding court costs and fees before regaining their voting rights. In Virginia, that also gives them the right to hold public office, serve on a jury and serve as a notary public. People who have their rights restored can also opt to indicate their new status via a notation in their criminal record.
“We have forced these men and women to battle a complicated and bewildering tangle of red tape to reach the voting booth, and too often we still turn them away,” McAuliffe said in a press release about the policy. “These men and women will still be required to pay their costs and fees, but their court debts will no longer serve as a financial barrier to voting, just as poll taxes did for so many years in Virginia.” Poll taxes were fines levied under Jim Crow to prevent black citizens from voting.
The administration says that since McAuliffe took office in January 2014, he has already restored voting rights for more than 8,250 people—more than any previous Virginia governor has during a four-year term. In April 2014, he reclassified people convicted on drug charges as non-violent, which immediately re-enfranchised 1,350+ people. He also shortened the five-year wait for violent offenders to regain their vote to three years.
More than half of Virginia’s inmates and ex-offenders are black. Before 2010, when McAuliffe’s predecessor Robert F. McDonnell (R) began reforming the system, 20 percent of black people in Virginia were disenfranchised in large part due to laws surrounding ex-offenders. Republican members of the General Assembly have blocked previous attempts to pass a constitutional amendment that would automatically restore voting rights to all ex-offenders.
For newly released nonviolent offenders, the rights restoration process in Virginia is theoretically seamless: The Department of Corrections submits a monthly listing of people who are no longer on probation or parole and have no pending felony charges, and the state is supposed to mail notification. But previously released people meeting the criteria need to submit a request form. Folks who were convicted of a violent crime, a crime against a minor or an election law violation must have completed probation or parole at least three years prior and have no additional convictions during the period. Then they can apply and ask the governor to restore their rights.