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In Virginia, Slow Going So Far on Rights Restoration for Felons

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[Image courtesy of WAVY]

Earlier this year, Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell announced that his office was expanding and streamlining the process for nonviolent felons to have their voting rights restored.

According to a recent article in the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star, however, the pace of restoration has been slow since it went into effect on July 15:

Some 350,000 convicted nonviolent felons became eligible to have their civil rights restored on July 15.

Two months later, only a small fraction of those eligible know about the policy. Even fewer have applied.

The challenge is partly due to the lack of a reliable list of individuals eligible for restoration:

"Virginia only has the names of people currently incarcerated, but not those who have been released. They don't know where these people are," said Ladelle McWhorter of Virginia Organizing, a non-partisan grass-roots group. "The thing that [the governor's office needs] is for people to come forward."

The state does not have a single comprehensive list of eligible nonviolent felons. So there is no efficient way to notify individuals of the rights-restoration process.

Community groups like Virginia Organizing are doing outreach to communities where eligible individuals may live, but to date just under 800 applications have been received by the Governor's office.

It's still early in the process, but Virginia's experience reveals the vital role of good data in any election administration effort. Given that both major-party candidates for Governor support the program, it is likely that there will be opportunities to assemble that data; in the meantime, however, community groups - and former offenders themselves - will continue their outreach efforts in hopes of identifying individuals eligible for rights restoration under Virginia's new system.

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