Voting rights elusive for ex-felons

In the coming summer months, when Virginia Organizing Project (VOP) organizer Harold Folley knocks on doors and talks to folks about the 2008 elections, inevitably some will tell him that they aren’t able to vote. And just maybe, Folley will lean in and pry a bit, stick his nose in their business, and discover that a felony conviction, even decades old, has taken away someone’s civil rights.

The Sentencing Project, a national organization that works on criminal justice issues, estimates that 5.3 million Americans—one in 41 adults—have lost their voting rights because of a felony conviction. And while each state has its own laws regarding the restoration of a felon’s civil rights, Virginia has one of the harshest sets of laws that make restoring your civil rights after a felony conviction a slog through a bureaucratic wasteland.

Civil rights include the right to vote, hold public office, serve on a jury and serve as a notary public. They do not include the right to possess a firearm.

Virginia has one of the nation’s harshest policies for felons who wish to regain the rights to vote, serve on a jury and hold public office.

“We encourage people all we can,” says Sheri Iachetta, Charlottesville’s general registrar. “But that’s about all we can do. It’s a really daunting procedure.”

Virginia and Kentucky are the only two states that do not automatically restore convicted felons’ civil rights. Most states restore these rights upon the completion of a prison sentence, probation or parole. In Virginia, felons convicted of a nonviolent offense must wait three years after completing all court obligations—sentencing, fines and probation—then file an application for the restoration of rights to the Secretary of the Commonwealth.

If your conviction is for a violent offense —or a drug manufacturing or distribution offense—the process is much more difficult.

The nonviolent offender’s application is two pages. The violent application is 12. Iachetta calls the violent felony forms cumbersome. “They’re horrible,” she says.

After waiting five years after all court obligations, a person convicted of a violent felony must obtain a burdensome collection of paperwork: a letter from your most recent probation or parole officer, copies of your pre- or post-sentence report, certified copies of every order of conviction and sentencing orders, three letters of reference and, to top it off, a personal letter to the Governor explaining your convictions and how your life has changed.

Iachetta says that roughly half of the people she sees who start the process don’t complete it.

“There’s got to be an easier way,” says Iachetta. “I don’t know at this point what it is. The process can be streamlined. That being said, until it happens, we’ve got to deal with what we’ve got.”

Folley says that VOP will have 50 interns canvassing the state this summer, hoping to knock on 300,000 doors. Each will have restoration applications with them for anyone unable to vote because of a felony, violent or nonviolent. “We’ll have all the information for them that they’ll need.”

And if they are in Charlottesville, chances are they will be directed to Iachetta. Folley says her office has been extremely helpful to people navigating the state labyrinth of civil rights restoration.

Applicants drop by to use the phone, making the long-distance call to Richmond to check on applications that sometimes seem to go nowhere as the October 6 deadline to register to vote in the 2008 elections grows nearer. The Virginia League of Women Voters is also making restoration of civil rights one of its priority issues.

Iachetta says a six-month wait is typical.

“I’m seeing it a little longer than six months,” she says, “but I also know that there are a lot of people going through this process.”

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