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UPDATED: Opposition builds to McDonnell's changes to felon voting rights restoration process

Anita Kumar

The ACLU of Virginia accused Gov. Bob McDonnell of reinstating a "literacy test" in Virginia when he decided to add another step for nonviolent felons to have their voting rights restored.

"For persons with a limited education, the governor's requirement that they write an essay explaining their past and present actions and the rationale for why their rights should be restored is a nearly insurmountable obstacle,'' said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis on Monday.

We reported this weekend that McDonnell (R) will require the offenders to submit a letter to the governor outlining their contributions to society since their release, turning a nearly automatic process into a more subjective one that some say might prevent poor, less-educated or minority residents from being allowed to vote.

Update, 12:35: The Democratic Party of Virginia called on McDonnell to remove the requirement.

"Governor McDonnell should immediately remove this costly and burdensome barrier for nonviolent offenders to renew their voting and 2nd Amendment rights,'' said Dave Mills, the party's executive director. "It's mind-boggling that Governor McDonnell would choose to bury the Secretary of the Commonwealth's office in unnecessary paperwork during a time of belt-tightening and budget cuts. Surely the secretary's valuable time could be used in more productive ways than grading essays for Governor McDonnell."

Update, 3:30 p.m. House Democratic Caucus Chairman Ken Plum and House Minority Leader Ward Armstrong issued a statement about the new requirement.

"By requiring nonviolent offenders to submit an essay, Governor McDonnell is returning to a 'blank sheet' voter registration system that in the past disenfranchised many African American voters," Plum said. "By creating an additional, unnecessary and egregious hurdle, McDonnell has violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the Federal Voting Rights Act."

Update, 6:30 p.m.The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus issued a statement: "Governor McDonnell's decision to use the executive power granted to him to transform the restoration of voting rights from an objective process to a subjective one that is contingent on an original essay for non-violent offenders is taking a horrific step back towards the era of Jim Crow. Make no mistake, the new essay requirement is an obstruction that will lead to judging applicants on the basis of political beliefs and ideological considerations."

McDonnell's administration said the requirement is designed to put a human face on each applicant and to help staff members better understand each person's situation.

Officials are revamping the entire system for felons to have their rights restored as McDonnell works to make good on a campaign pledge to process every application within 90 days, considerably faster than any other administration in recent history.

Del. Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria) sent a letter to McDonnell asking him to rescind him the requirement, saying it was highly discriminatory against the poor and under-educated and violates the separation of powers.

"The essay requirement violates the separation of powers of the court and the Governor's office which was designed to prevent this very scenario -- making the restoration of rights a political process," Herring said.

By Anita Kumar  |  April 12, 2010; 11:35 AM ET
Categories:  Anita Kumar  
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If you want to have the folks pass a lit test, Make it the Judge ( or Juries) prerogative . The power grab by big government is obscene.

Posted by: pvogel88 | April 12, 2010 2:02 PM | Report abuse

These aren't misdemeaner'ers, these are FELONS! Why are we letting them vote again in the first place?

Posted by: 21stCenturyCaveman | April 12, 2010 2:16 PM | Report abuse

I have a prison pen pal from virginia and let me tell you his writing skills are very poor. There also is not much help for him in jail to become a better writer. If mcdonnell wants inmates to develop their writing skills, he should do more to provide educational opportunities in VA's jails and prisons. A basic education is important to be successful in today's world, but being able to read and write alone does not make someone an honest or dishonest person.

Posted by: MarilynManson | April 12, 2010 2:17 PM | Report abuse

If you want to make processing applications quicker, then why make people write an essay? The only reason is to provide a barrier, so less people will get their rights back. We should be trying to get people integrated in society instead of further alienating them.

Posted by: bperk420 | April 12, 2010 2:36 PM | Report abuse

Too bad there's not a literacy test for being allowed to hold signs at teabagger rallies.

Posted by: koolkat_1960 | April 12, 2010 2:36 PM | Report abuse

I guess it is possible that the felon can't write and doesn't actually know anyone that can help. It could happen. I guess.

Posted by: TooManyPeople | April 12, 2010 2:39 PM | Report abuse

Nonviolent felonies include possession of marijuana, trespassing, obscenity, patronizing a prostitute, sports bribing, unauthorized use of a vehicle, receiving a bribe as a public official... Do we really want to permanently prohibit all nonviolent felons from the rights of citizenship?

Posted by: annie7 | April 12, 2010 2:42 PM | Report abuse

One has to wonder if people in VA who voted for this whack job are starting to have buyers' remorse. Every week he comes out with something that's loonier than the last one.

Posted by: checkered1 | April 12, 2010 2:43 PM | Report abuse

Doing their time should be enough.

Posted by: jckdoors | April 12, 2010 2:45 PM | Report abuse

Also, who is this intended to stop from voting? A dishonest person would simply have someone else write the essay for them and pass. While an honest person with poor writing skills would try their best and fail.
In anycase, once a prisoner is released back into society we should be doing all we can to keep them from re-offending. We spend millions on studies on human behavior. We should put science to use, and do what works; work release programs, education, decent housing, and integrating released prisoners back into society.
I don't see how this essay would help in that regard.

Posted by: MarilynManson | April 12, 2010 2:50 PM | Report abuse

Well, gov. mcRacist is at it again - what is the essay suppose to say: I am in prison and I want to vote. This request is the equivalent of the poll tax and the essay requirement for blacks to write in order to vote years ago.

This governor is a piece of work - well most gays are! People like him will have you focusing on other issues therefore you will never know that he has not created the jobs he promised during his campaign. WHERE ARE THE JOBS - governor McRacist?

Posted by: sun52shine | April 12, 2010 2:55 PM | Report abuse

Well, let's take a look at who will be writing these essays.

According to Doris J. James of the Bureau of Justice Statistics in "Profile of Jail Inmates, 2002," jail inmates in 2002 with less than a high school education include 31.6% with "some high school" and 12.3% with eighth grade or less, for a total of 43.9% of all inmates. Another 43% of jail inmates had attained either a high school diploma or GED as their highest level of education. So, almost 87% are at the high school level or less, and I am guessing that the post-education activities that landed them in jail did not serve to sharpen their writing skills, save perhaps for ransom notes.

Who will be reading these essays? No doubt Governor Bob will offer to provide summer jobs for worthy students from Liberty University, who will be all warm and fuzzy if only the essays mention the Bible, God and the Republican Party. Will neatness count? Penmanship? Party affiliation?

This is just wacky. I hope the Governor has enough sense to be ashamed, but I doubt it.

I am gue

Posted by: jams2 | April 12, 2010 3:00 PM | Report abuse

Just another example of the moderate Republican elected here in Virginia. OK Bobo Bob, what's the next idiot decision we can expect from your office? Based on past events this should be April's idiot move of the month. What sort of nonsense can we expect in May?

Posted by: army164 | April 12, 2010 3:05 PM | Report abuse

Ummm....this isn't a new idea: "Prior to passage of the federal Voting Rights Act in 1965, Southern (and some Western) states maintained elaborate voter registration procedures whose primary purpose was to deny the vote to those who were not white. In the South, this process was often called the "literacy test." In fact, it was much more than a simple test, it was an entire complex system devoted to denying African-Americans (and in some regions, Latinos) the right to vote."

Posted by: jbparker13 | April 12, 2010 3:07 PM | Report abuse

Interesting posts. Some seem attribute one's ability to read and write with one's race. And therefore if Person A is ____, then he/she is illiterate. Now who is the racist, I wonder?

Posted by: CubsFan | April 12, 2010 3:24 PM | Report abuse

The Virginia constitution deprives felons of their right to vote unless the governor reinstates it. It appears, however, that he can delegate that authority within the executive branch. In any case, there is no "power grab" in this matter as the Governor's authority is explicitly provided for in the state constitution.

Rather than ascribe ugly motives to the Governor, why not consider the potential benefits of requiring felons to submit a letter explaining why they believe their right to vote should be restored. I seriously doubt that the letter will be graded like a school essay, with points off for poor grammar and diction. And as I understand it, the applicant may seek the assistance of friends, family or a lawyer in preparing the letter.

The whole point of this exercise, as I understand it, is to bring home to the applicant that reinstatement of voting rights is not automatic. Instead, it is conditioned on the applicant's sincere attempts at rehabilitation. It may turn out, with experience, that the letter does not substantially advance that goal, at which point the requirement would need to be re-evaluated. But surely everyone can agree on the validity of the goal itself, if not the specific means of arriving at it.

Sadly, the Post article (as is too often the case I'm afraid) portrays this measure in tabloid fashion as controversial and incendiary. Whether the Post takes this tact to sell papers (an understandable goal, I suppose, given its financial situation) or because the Post did not support the Governor is anyone's guess. It certainly does not contribute to the free flow of ideas, but rather invites the ugly, ad hominem attacks posted on this site.

Posted by: wotan1066 | April 12, 2010 3:27 PM | Report abuse

I could understand this if we were talking about violent felons who'd really need to prove they were ready to be active and responsible participants in society, but this is a bit much for non-violent felons, whatever their race or educational background. Doing their time should be enough.

Posted by: dinadinadina | April 12, 2010 3:53 PM | Report abuse

Note to Virginians: Didn't the cheesy "Leave it to Beaver" style campaign commercials speak volumns of the make believe world Bob McDonnell and family live in? If not that, the haircut?

Posted by: Its_the_Truth_Anyhow | April 12, 2010 3:54 PM | Report abuse

Felons should not be permitted to vote. Anything that promotes literacy and education in the prisons would be a good thing, as for some, it helps then earn an honest living and not commit crimes in the future.

Posted by: lsf07 | April 12, 2010 4:00 PM | Report abuse

Bob, How about an essay from you to us on the stupidity of your AG and yourself. I promise to be subjective. NOT!

Posted by: classicskins | April 12, 2010 4:19 PM | Report abuse

Is anyone really surprised by the latest tactic of the govenor? This administration (include the AG) has set the Commonwealth back to the pre Civil Rights era. The good ole boys are in charge again. We had a glimmer of being a progressive state that was respected by others for awhile. Now it's an embarassment!

Posted by: harrija1 | April 12, 2010 4:50 PM | Report abuse

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights..."

The government has no right to take voting rights away from citizens. Voting right restrictions are just a disguised form of racism. People turn to crime when opportunities are blocked and courts and prisons are filled with victims of racism. America was founded on the principle that legislation does not morally bind people who have no representation in government.

Posted by: lartfromabove | April 12, 2010 4:52 PM | Report abuse

Bob's losing the civil libertarians (not that he really had them to begin with) by erecting another bureacratic barrier to rights which are self-evident.

Posted by: millionea7 | April 12, 2010 5:00 PM | Report abuse

dear GOv McDonnell

I found Jaysus. Can I vote nows?

End of essay

Posted by: racerdoc | April 12, 2010 5:22 PM | Report abuse

Toughen it up, Governor.
The comments are proof that too many ignorant illiterates are voting, already.

Posted by: dadgum41 | April 12, 2010 5:43 PM | Report abuse

I guess I get to say this now every week. This is why Marylanders dont do Virginia. If you are a minority,gay or transgender, not a Christian or in any other way different stay the hell out of this state. If Maryland would tweak its laws to be more friendly toward business there would never be a reason for anyone to want to locate there. There is one reason and one reason only he wants to do this and that is stated in the article that the majority of prisoners vote democratic. Its like poll taxes and Jim Crow laws for VA. Pretty soon he will direct the cops to only stop minorities. You folks voted for this loser and now you reap the reward of that. Are you happy in Northern VA yet? How are those road improvements going? Dont hold your breath!

Posted by: shschwarz | April 12, 2010 5:55 PM | Report abuse

Wotan 1066:

No everyone can not agree on that. If you serve your time and get out of jail your rights should be restored. Welcome to the 21st century. Seems VA is living in the last one still.

Posted by: shschwarz | April 12, 2010 6:08 PM | Report abuse

Felons, particularly non-violent felons should have their "full' rights restored, upon leaving prison/ jail. The right to vote, not to be discriminated when looking for employment, access to decent housing, etc, etc. Once time is served, non-violent "felons" should have records expunged, across the board!

Posted by: gmaddz55 | April 12, 2010 6:36 PM | Report abuse

You are 18 and get caught with drugs... you paid your fine but are now a felon... skip forward today you are a 55 year old CEO, with 3 kids in college, a mortgage, the PTA secretary for your youngest and have never gotten so much as a speeding ticket... This is ALSO the type of person who deserves to get voting rights restored.. not all felons are scary jailbirds they are living and working in your suburban world... So when you say that felons never deserve to have rights restored think again... And really anyone can write an essay-- even if they have to dictate it--

Posted by: dancingfish | April 12, 2010 7:15 PM | Report abuse

This hurdle is clearly to preclude minorities from voting. It is clearly to enable white collar criminals who most likely would vote republican to vote again. This adds an element to this process that is subject to the possibility of corruption and preferential treatment. If you are going to give them the right to vote, then it has to be fair and objective. This is to supposedly put a face on every prisoner, but what color face????

This governor is the worst. He has made Virginia a laughingstock in record time. Thanks for the focus on jobs!

Posted by: hockeymom1 | April 12, 2010 7:52 PM | Report abuse

What did the people of Virginia do to deserve the likes of the Gov. and AG? Sure, they voted them in but I'm not sure the people thought these two would stretch the Constitution as much or more than any other politicos. I believe Virginians have been duped by these two and a group called teabaggers.

Posted by: hoser3 | April 12, 2010 10:04 PM | Report abuse

Anyone else wondering what Mac's and Coochie-coo's real motivations are? Somehow these two are coming off as a threat to freedom rather than its' supporters. Virginians, you've been teabagged.

Posted by: hoser3 | April 12, 2010 10:11 PM | Report abuse

McDonnell goes absolutely Tancredo on Virginia!

Posted by: hoser3 | April 12, 2010 10:15 PM | Report abuse

Doing time should be the end of it to get your rights back. If we can't give them even the right to vote back then other people need to have their rights taken away also. I lost a car to a drunk driver and had to take the money out of my pocket. How many of us drink and drive, shouldn't they lose their rights also.It wasn't his first time and in my opinion he may as well of robbed me at gun point. At least he didn't kill my husband in the crash also.

Posted by: snowy6140 | April 13, 2010 10:06 AM | Report abuse

He has time to dredge up this antiquated literacy test nonsense ... but people in his own state are fighting for something in real time - and he could not be bothered.

Posted by: Libramom | April 13, 2010 3:44 PM | Report abuse

So he wants felons to do something to show their worth and that is considered racist. Are the black community leaders saying that Obamas make up the largest group of felons and that Obamas may be unable to write 30 words proving their worth. Then these leaders should stop whining about racism and start doing something with their living stereotypes.

Posted by: jimmycoomer | April 13, 2010 6:19 PM | Report abuse

shouldn't the black caucus be worrying about important matters like keeping guam from tipping over?

Posted by: jimmycoomer | April 13, 2010 6:24 PM | Report abuse

Virginia 'Literacy Test' Victims: We Will Write Your Essays By Lori Price, 14 April 2010 Calling all academics, journalists, bloggers, students, and concerned citizens! Virginia Governor Robert F. McDonnell, a deeply disturbed troglodyte whose candidacy should have *never* seen the light of day, yet alone affirmation, wants nonviolent felons to submit to a 'literacy test' in order to restore their rights as citizens... Should this 'literacy test' become law in Virginia, we - a team of academics, journalists, bloggers, students, and concerned citizens - will happily write essays (or required 'statements') for any nonviolent felon who seeks our help.

Posted by: lorifromclg | April 13, 2010 6:27 PM | Report abuse

Virginia 'Literacy Test' Victims: We Will Write Your Essays By Lori Price, 14 April 2010 Calling all academics, journalists, bloggers, students, and concerned citizens! Virginia Governor Robert F. McDonnell, a deeply disturbed troglodyte whose candidacy should have *never* seen the light of day, yet alone affirmation, wants nonviolent felons to submit to a 'literacy test' in order to restore their rights as citizens... Should this 'literacy test' become law in Virginia, we - a team of academics, journalists, bloggers, students, and concerned citizens - will happily write essays (or required 'statements') for any nonviolent felon who seeks our help.

Posted by: lorifromclg | April 13, 2010 6:27 PM | Report abuse

political cartoon on Gov. Bob "Jim Crow" McDonnell bringing back another part of VA's proud history, the literacy test:

Posted by: jadonofrio | April 14, 2010 12:00 AM | Report abuse

voting is a RIGHT, not a privilege. regardless of motives (this appears highly suspicious), there is no reasonable basis to require someone to submit an essay describing why they deserve to have the RIGHTS of any other citizen. END OF STORY.

Posted by: dcresident11 | April 14, 2010 11:42 AM | Report abuse

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