SJR 423

Joint Subcommittee to Study Election Law and Felon Disenfranchisement

June 30, 1999, Richmond

State Board of Elections Activities

The secretary of the State Board of Elections reported to the joint subcommittee on three items:

The Virginia Voter Registration System. A committee to oversee the upgrade of the VVRS has been meeting and work is proceeding. New computer equipment for all general registrars will be in place and training completed by the end of August. The new equipment will replace the "dumb" terminals formerly in use in many general registrars' offices and allow all registrars to communicate with the State Board. The VVRS is now a "real time" system and ahead of many state systems in that registration information entered into the system is immediately incorporated into the system database. Refinements to the database will retain this feature. The oversight committee is continuing to meet, and the secretary will give a progress report at the joint subcommittee's next meeting.

Election information on the Internet. A new feature of the State Board's current website is the "Find Your Polling Place" site that allows an individual to type in his address and get a report showing his polling place and elected representatives, with links provided to the representatives' home pages. The State Board site has a page showing information on constitutional amendments, which now contains the summaries of the 1998 constitutional ballot questions and proposed amendments. New information will be supplied for questions, if any, placed on the 2000 ballot.

Polling place and voting accessibility. S 511, introduced by Senators McCain and Kerrey and now pending in Congress, sets out requirements for the states to provide disabled voters full access to the polls and voting equipment. Along with the National Task Force on Elections Accessibility, the State Board advocates delaying action on the bill until there is more information on costs to states and localities and the reliability of the types of voting equipment mandated by the bill.

Restoration of Felons' Voting Rights

Staff presented a background report that covered four areas:
1. Process for Obtaining Restoration of Rights
Applicants for restoration file a petition to the Governor that is processed by the Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth. The petitioner must meet eligibility requirements, complete the application form, and provide supporting documents.
Eligibility Requirements
Application Form and Documents

The Secretary of the Commonwealth's office receives approximately 10 to 20 applications each week. Most, if not all, applications will be incomplete when first filed (400 to 600 incomplete applications are now on file) and many applications may be filed by ineligible applicants (400 to 500 applications are now on file from ineligible applicants).

There are now 62 complete applications on file. The office has completed the Central Criminal Records Exchange check of the applicants to determine that there are no charges not reported in the application and is preparing the summary of these applications to forward to the Governor for action. Governor Gilmore has approved one application to date in 1999 and has approved 18 of 28 (65 percent) of the applications forwarded to him by the office in 1998 and 1999.

2. Statistics
Number Average per year
Petitions granted, 1958-1997
Petitions granted, 1986-1998
Felony convictions, 1945-1998
Felony convictions, 1986
Felony convictions, 1997

Estimated Disenfranchised Population in Virginia
In prison
On probation
On parole
Percentage (total voting age population)
Percentage (adult black men)
*Black males, 110,000
Source: Losing the Vote, Human Rights Watch and the Sentencing Project (1998).

3. Developments in the Law
Staff reviewed the evolution of disenfranchisement provisions in Virginia from 1699 to date, including the 1971 constitutional revisions providing for disenfranchisement of felons and restoration of rights by executive clemency or "other appropriate authority," the defeat in 1982 of a proposed constitutional amendment to give the General Assembly authority to provide for restoration of rights by law, and the major federal cases on the issue.
4. Conclusions, Policy Questions, and Options
Conclusions. The average number of petitions granted has remained constant while the number of disenfranchised voters has increased.

Policy questions. Is the application too complex? Are all required documents necessary? Should different requirements apply to different categories of felons? Should automatic restoration be tested for certain categories of felonies?

Options. (i) Consultation by the subcommittee with representatives of the Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth and Governor's Office; (ii) request for an opinion from the Attorney General on the constitutionality of legislation to provide for some form of automatic restoration; (iii) consideration of legislation or a constitutional amendment.

A number of speakers advocated changes in the present restoration process to allow automatic restoration of rights in certain cases or to streamline the application process.

Next Meeting

The joint subcommittee agreed to focus its efforts on the disenfranchisement and voter information issues. It scheduled its next meeting for Tuesday, August 17, at 2:00 p.m. in the General Assembly Building.

The joint subcommittee asked for additional information on a number of topics before its next meeting:

The Honorable Mary Margaret Whipple, Chair
Legislative Services contact: Mary Spain