There's nothing that William Sawyer wanted more last year than to vote in the presidential election. But because of two felony convictions in New Jersey 25 years ago, the Petersburg resident was stripped of some of his most fundamental civil rights — including the right to vote.
"I don't understand why they are not giving me my rights back," said the 51-year-old. "I have paid my debt and I want to exercise my rights as an American."
Virginia is one of four states that require a decree by the governor or a clemency board to restore a felon's voting rights. The procedure can drag out over years. Democratic legislators have tried for decades to amend the state constitution to automatically restore voting rights for nonviolent felons after they have served their time.
On Wednesday, these efforts received backing from Gov. Bob McDonnell, who urged legislators to create the legal framework for an automated process leading to the restoration of voting rights.
"As a nation, and for me as a governor, that believes in redemption and second chances and helping people that make mistakes, I think it's time we provide a clear path for willing individuals who want to become productive members of the society once they have served their sentences and have paid their fines and restitution and their debts to society," McDonnell said.
The governor's announcement was greeted with praise from numerous civic organizations nationwide.
"Allowing Americans who have served their time to have a voice in their community will reap great benefits in terms of public safety and a more robust democracy. The legislature should swiftly respond to [the governor's] call," said Myrna Pérez, senior counsel with the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School. "This would move Virginia to the mainstream," Pérez said.
Claire G. Gastañaga, executive director with the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, said that McDonnell deserves credit for the efforts that he has already made to increase the number of felons who have had their rights restored. "McDonnell is right; it's time for Virginia to shed this vestige of the Jim Crow era and provide offenders the opportunity to participate again in our democracy," Gastañaga said.
Only three other states — Florida, Kentucky and Iowa — do not have automatic restoration of voting rights. In Virginia, more than 450,000 individuals, or 7.3 percent of the population, are barred from exercising their right to vote due to a felony conviction, according to a study by the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit research group advocating reforms of the criminal justice system. Many of those disenfranchised are poor, African-American or Latino, according to the organization.
The group has recorded that in Virginia the majority of disenfranchised individuals are no longer incarcerated and are tax-paying citizens with jobs. The study also shows that at least two-thirds have fully completed their sentences, including probation and parole.
Sawyer is one of them. When he was in his 20s, he served two years in prison for convictions on a drug charge and possession of stolen property. "I made some stupid choices, but I was never a violent felon," he said. "I did my time, I paid my fees, I did everything that I had to do."
Sawyer has filed paperwork with the Secretary of the Commonwealth Office to get his rights restored but said that his case is complex because he was convicted out of state.
Under current Virginia law, an applicant for voting rights restoration must
» be free from any sentence served or supervised probation and parole for a minimum of two years for a nonviolent offense or five years for a violent felony or drug distribution, drug manufacturing offense or any crimes against a minor;
» have paid all fines, penalties and court costs and have no felony or misdemeanor charges pending;
» not have had a drunken-driving conviction in the five years preceding the application; and
» not have any misdemeanor convictions or pending criminal charges two years preceding the application for nonviolent felonies or five years for a violent felony or drug distribution, drug manufacturing offense or crimes against a minor.
A successful petition restores the rights to vote, to run for public office, to serve on juries and to serve as a notary public. It does, however, not restore the right to possess or transport any firearm or carry a concealed weapon. It is also not a pardon.
The process of voting rights restoration is under sole control of the governor. But only the General Assembly can put the vote to amend the constitution, which is required to change the law, before the people.
A proposed constitutional amendment requires approval by two separate legislative sessions, with an election for the House of Delegates in between, before it can be put to a referendum by voters.
If the General Assembly approves the change during the 2013 session, it must do so again next year. If it passes a second time, the amendment can be voted on in November 2014.
While the evenly divided Senate might pass such legislation, it is less likely to pass in the Republican controlled House — especially in an election year. McDonnell, the first Republican governor in the state to openly support automatic automated voting rights restoration, might not garner enough support within his own party.
House Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford, said on Thursday that he opposes "blanket restoration" of voting rights for all nonviolent felons. Instead, Howell said he would like to keep the status quo and decide on case-by-case basis. "The governor has restored rights for 4,500 people in his three years so far," he said. "There is a process that works."
House Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox, R-Colonial Heights, said that voting restoration is not a priority for him. "Nonviolent felons are not on the top of my list," he said.
So far, the only House Republican to sponsor voting rights restoration for this session is Del. Gregory D. Habeeb, R-Salem.
In the Senate, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling is likely to also make a push in favor of this legislation. "I feel pretty confident about the ability to get this constitutional amendment out of the Senate," Bolling said. "It may be a bit more challenging to get it out of the House of Delegates, but the governor and I and our team are going to be working, trying to get that done," he said.
Democrats say they welcome more support from the GOP — and they will need it. "We're not married to our bills," said Del. Rosalyn R. Dance, D-Petersburg. "If there's a better one on the other side of the aisle, we're more than willing to merge or add our names to the list so at the end of the day, we have rights restored."
To disenfranchised Virginians like Sawyer, who recently had heart surgery, that's all what matters.
"I just want to vote before I die," he said.