Gov. Bob McDonnell today will announce that he is automatically restoring the voting rights of nonviolent felons on an individual basis.
The sweeping administrative action - while not an instantaneous blanket restoration - is as far as the governor can go within current Virginia law, administration officials said.
The change, effective July 15, removes the application process for nonviolent felons. Once the administration verifies a nonviolent felon has paid his debt to society, the governor will send the individual a letter restoring his rights.
The change means thousands of nonviolent felons in Virginia could get their voting rights back in time to vote in the November election.
"We are on the as-soon-as-possible timeline," said Secretary of the Commonwealth Janet Kelly.
As of Tuesday, McDonnell had restored the civil rights of 4,843 felons, more than any other governor's administration. But there are still about 350,000 disenfranchised people in the state who have completed their sentences, according to The Sentencing Project's 2012 report, which used 2010 numbers.
The McDonnell administration says it does not know how many felons in Virginia have completed their sentences, because there is no comprehensive database.
McDonnell's change applies only to nonviolent felons. Under current procedures, there is a two-year waiting period before a nonviolent felon can apply for restoration of rights. Under the current process, the governor does not have to approve any particular application.
McDonnell is removing the waiting period and the subjectivity. Once the administration verifies that a nonviolent felon has completed his sentence and probation or parole, and paid all fines and restitution, the governor will send the person a letter restoring his rights, provided the individual has no pending felony charges.
The governor also is removing a restriction in the current system that precludes anyone from being eligible to have his rights restored if he has had a conviction for driving under the influence in the past five years.
The timetable for restoring rights will depend on how many nonviolent felons the state must process, Kelly said. She noted that between now and July 15 her office will process its current applications using the new criteria, "so it should go very quickly."
The process for people convicted of violent felonies will be unchanged. They will continue to have a five-year waiting period and must submit an application for review by the governor.
The change for nonviolent felons, coming in the final year of the governor's term, caps a years-long effort by McDonnell to streamline the restoration process in Virginia, a state in which only the governor can restore a felon's civil rights.
Administration officials said McDonnell, a former prosecutor, believes in punishment, but he also believes in redemption and opportunity.
"In many ways it's the culmination of a career of effort to fix this issue in Virginia," said J. Tucker Martin, a spokesman for McDonnell.
McDonnell ran on implementing a speedier petition-review process. Once in office, he set a goal of deciding on a complete application within 60 days. The petition approval rate under his administration currently hovers around 90 percent for nonviolent felons, according to his office.
In January, he put his political weight behind unsuccessful legislation that would have changed the Virginia Constitution to allow for automatic restoration of rights for nonviolent felons who have completed their terms.
Following that failed legislative effort, advocates urged McDonnell to do it himself. Groups have erected billboards, posted petitions and organized a college campus tour to raise awareness.
Virginia is one of four states that permanently disenfranchise people with felony convictions unless the government approves rights restoration for individuals, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
The push for McDonnell to issue a blanket restoration is similar to the effort waged under his predecessor, Timothy M. Kaine, D-Va., now a U.S. senator.
Kaine said in 2009 that, according to his legal advisers' analysis of Virginia law, he could not issue a blanket restoration. "I have to restore people by name," he said.
The governor's action appears to have support among the public. A Quinnipiac University poll taken in February showed strong support among Virginia voters, 71 percent to 23 percent, for the restoration of voting rights for nonviolent felons who have served their prison sentences.
But Kelly noted a daunting logistical challenge ahead.
"If you're sitting in prison right now, we know where you are," Kelly said. "If you got out of prison 20 years ago, we don't know where you are."
That's one reason the governor urged Kelly's office to work with "stakeholders" who work with prisoners in order to help track people down.
On Tuesday, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican nominee for governor, called for an expedited rights-restoration process.
He released a report compiled by a bipartisan commission of lawyers the attorney general convened in March, presenting legal alternatives to the current system of restoring the civil rights of nonviolent felons.
For example, the report said, the governor could "exercise his discretionary clemency power in a more expansive manner" to streamline the process.
"I believe we need a simpler way for individuals who want to return to their place in society to be given a second chance and regain their civil rights that were lost through a felony conviction," Cuccinelli said at a news conference with members of the panel.
The panel concluded that the General Assembly cannot pass a statute to provide automatic restoration. It also agreed that the governor could not issue an executive order to restore rights to all convicted felons.
McDonnell administration officials said the governor's action meshes with the parameters Cuccinelli discussed, because the governor is not enacting a blanket restoration, but a dramatically expedited process for individual nonviolent felons.
Cuccinelli supported McDonnell's bid for a constitutional amendment. But as a state senator, Cuccinelli voted against a constitutional amendment in five separate years.
On Tuesday, the attorney general said he had undergone a "change in heart" on the issue in recent years as he learned more about the criminal justice system and the impact of rights restoration on allowing successful re-entry of former criminals into society.
Sen. A. Donald McEachin, D-Henrico, called the Cuccinelli commission report "cynical election-year posturing."
Meantime, Kelly's office prepares for a deluge. Currently two full-time workers in her office are assigned to rights restoration. The office is bringing on four additional people to help with the expected "influx of interest."
From July 15 until the deadline to register to vote, "you are going to have about 2½ months of crunch time," Kelly said.
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Staff writer Jim Nolan and Politics Editor Andrew Cain contributed to this report.