Michael Edwards, a community leader in southern Virginia, spent eight years in prison for a marijuana-trafficking conviction in the 1970s.
But he said he feels like he was punished for more than 30 years — the time it took for him to regain his voting rights in Virginia.
That won’t happen to any other ex-felons in Virginia if a group of civil rights organizations are successful in their campaign to push Gov. Robert McDonnell to provide an easier path to voting for ex-felons who have served their time.
“These people live and work and pay taxes but don’t have a voice on this issue,” said Edgardo Cortes of the Advancement Project, a voting rights group based in Washington, D.C., during a national telephone press conference Wednesday. “The governor has shown leadership on this issue but now is the time for him to take additional action.”
In Virginia and three other states, a felony conviction means the automatic loss of many civil rights — chief among them being the right to vote — even after the criminal serves their time in prison.
But the civil rights groups are pushing McDonnell to bypass the state legislature and automatically restore voting rights for ex-felons by executive order.
While the civil rights groups and Gov. McDonnell agree ex-felons should have their voting rights restored automatically after paying their debt to society, the sticking point is how to achieve it.
McDonnell, a Republican, wants the state legislature to act but Cortes says McDonnell has the power to act on his own, which he has been reluctant to do.
In January, the Republican-led Virginia House blocked a measure to expand voting rights for ex-felons, even though McDonnell had given a speech in support of it days earlier.
Tram Nguyen, a director of Virginia New Majority, a voting rights group, said not only would ex-felons benefit from expanded voting rights but it would help the general population through lower crime rates.
Nguyen cited a study, showing that ex-felons are less likely to commit new crimes if they have their civil rights, such as voting, restored after serving their sentences.
“This is based on the ideas of forgiveness, rehabilitation, and community involvement,” Nguyen said.
He said that after being denied by Virginia authorities three times in his efforts to get his voting rights back, he won’t be giving them up anytime soon.
“I can’t see me doing anything to ever lose that right [to vote] again,” Edwards said.
Cortes said Florida, Kentucky, and Iowa also take away voting rights for ex-felons and require their respective governors to restore them. He said that civil rights groups are hoping that automatic voting rights restoration in Virginia could help ignite greater action in the other three states.