A new program at Rising Hope UMC will help disenfranchised voters get their voting rights restored.
Thanks to a $2,500 Peace with Justice grant awarded by the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society, Rising Hope started a program last month to help disenfranchised voters on the Route 1 corridor through the process get their voting rights restored.
Rising Hope staff member Kay Barnes helped spearhead the South County Coalition for the Restoration of Voting Rights. Barnes, who hails from the United Kingdom, said she “couldn’t believe” that disenfranchised voters don’t automatically have their rights restored. She is currently working with volunteers to circulate information about the coalition and recruiting volunteers for the program.
“Information is being circulated via various community networks and at metro stations,” she said. “It’s going out to everyone we can think of.”
Virginia and Kentucky are the only two states that will permanently disfranchise all persons convicted of a felony, requiring an individual act of the governor to restore voting rights. This mandate prevents nearly 300,000 Virginia residents from voting. In southern Fairfax County, there are at least 2,000 people who are convicted felons whose right to vote could possibly be restored. Felon disenfranchisement originated in the Jim Crow era, along with tactics including a poll tax and literacy test. Virginia’s voter disenfranchisement law has been on the books since 1904.
In Virginia, disenfranchised voters must appeal to the governor, who has the power to restore voting rights. In 2010, Gov. Bob McDonnell made two reforms to the program to make the process more efficient. The first was reducing the waiting period for the restoration of voting rights from three years to two years. The second was announcing a 60-day turnaround time for restoration of rights applications.
Restoration of rights in the Commonwealth of Virginia restores the rights to vote, to run for and hold public office, to serve on juries and to serve as a notary public.
The South County Coalition for the Restoration of Voting Rights helps disenfranchised voters through the process to get their rights restored.
“We have a checklist we go through with people who want their rights restored,” Barnes explained. “We help them get the documentation together to petition the governor.”
Restoring a voter’s rights has its advantages. A 2011 study by the Florida Parole Commission reported the overall three-year recidivism rate based on all released inmates from 2001 to 2008 was 33.1 percent, while that rate for released prisoners who were given their right to vote back was 11 percent.
In Virginia, if an application is rejected, the applicant has no right to appeal, but can reapply after a one-year period.
Del. Scott Surovell (D-44th) has advocated for the restoration of voting rights for disenfranchised voters since he was elected to office. He believes McDonnell has done more than any other governor to help disenfranchised voters.
“One of the things that’s important to point out is Governor McDonnell has probably done more to facilitate a rational, predictable and fair restoration process than any governor I’ve seen,” Surovell said. “Prisoner reintegration is a big priority. I’m impressed with steps he’s taking to make the system better. “
Surovell has canvassed up and down Route 1 and has spoken to disenfranchised voters; many don't realize they can have their rights restored.
“It makes them feel more like members of society once it’s done.” Surovell said.
Barnes hopes that the coalition can help disenfranchised voters restore their rights in time for the presidential election this November.
The South County Coalition for the Restoration of Voting Rights is currently seeking volunteers. For more information, contact Carol Maxwell at 703-360-1976.