Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell made a serious mistake when he issued a proclamation in honor of Confederate History Month, but failed to mention the matter of slavery. However, McDonnell quickly realized his error, corrected it, and apologized.
Most observers believe, therefore, that McDonnell will not suffer politically as a result of his momentary lapse of judgment. But they agree that another such lapse any time soon would injure him.
Against this backdrop, Sunday’s Washington Post reported that McDonnell is once again “in hot water” with “black leaders and civil rights groups.” Why? Because he intends to require non-violent felons who seek a restoration of their voting rights to submit an essay outlining their contributions to society since their release. Under recent prior administrations, the restoration process was automatic.
Whatever black leaders and civil rights group might think, McDonnell’s decision isn’t likely to hurt him politically. His plan reportedly calls on non-violent ex-felons to explain the circumstances of their arrest; their efforts to get a job, seek an education and participate in church and community activities; and why they believe their rights should be restored. I suspect that most Virginia voters don’t think this requirement asks to much of ex-felons seeking the right to vote. To the contrary, McDonnell’s approach reflects important values that Virginians likely share. It allows for redemption without de-valuing the concept.
There is, at the same time, potential for mischief in the subjective process McDonnell plans to impose. In practice, it could disproportionately prevent poor, less-educated, or minority individuals from regaining the right to vote where they are just deserving of regaining it.
But that remains to be seen. Unlike with the Confederate History Month proclamation, McDonnell’s approach to enfranchisement for ex-felons seems sensible on its face. If it proves to be problematic in practice, there will be ample opportunity to complain. In the meantime, McDonnell now has ample incentive to make sure it does not prove problematic.
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