Restoring Voting Rights to Ex-Felons

By: Lisa Ferrari
By: Lisa Ferrari

January 8, 2006

One of the most fundamental rights of a democratic nation is the right to vote but advocates for ex-felons say Virginia is prohibiting thousands of Americans from exercising their constitutional rights.

In recent years states have eased their restrictions on ex-felons voting rights but Virginia and a handful of states still bar ex-felons from voting unless they go through a lengthy process and the state government restores their rights.

Jim Shea holds a Ph.D. He's a family man and an upstanding citizen and resident of Charlottesville but back in the 60's when many were protesting the Vietnam War, Shea did something he's not proud of.

?I was arrested for federal misdemeanors and I did not show up when I was supposed to be incarcerated so I was indicted for felony bail jumping,? said Shea.

Even after finishing his sentence and completing probation, as an ex-felon Shea was barred from voting in Virginia. Virginia is one of few states where ex-felons must submit an application and have the governor restore their right to vote.

?I could not have completed the process myself if I hadn't had the help of Senator John Warner who got a document for me that I was not able to get any other way,? said Shea.

A quarter of a million Americans who leave prison are denied voting rights in Virginia. Local republican leaders say there's a reason that the state doesn't automatically restore ex-felons rights.

?It?s not just voting; they are also going to be allowed to sit on juries. And if we are going to say that we're going to let you sit on a jury and try criminal cases that might be similar to the case you had we really want to make sure that you have turned things around,? said Del. Rob Bell (R) 58th District.

Still, local democrats say the current restoration process needs work.

?It's a cumbersome...way of doing it and their should be an administrative way of doing it in the future. And that's what we were trying to work on,? said Retired Del. Mitch Van Yahres (D) 57th District.

Since getting his rights restored, Jim Shea has been helping other ex-felons in our area cut through the red tape and in the last five years he says he has not had one single success.

?They've paid their debt by completing their sentence. Therefore, they ought to be normal citizens just like the rest of us,? said Shea.

According to the Sentencing Project of the 244,000 released felons in Virginia only 5,000 had their rights restored between 1982 and 2004.

Charlottesville's city councilors have even gotten involved in this issue and they have asked the 2006 General Assembly to consider eliminating the requirement of the governor's approval to restore voting rights of certain felons.

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