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How restoring the vote to formerly incarcerated people is ‘smart government’

When Melissa Trinidad lost her right to vote, she said it felt like she'd lost her voice. 

“I wasn't really aware of the things that I would lose once becoming a felon until after I was a felon,” Trinidad said. “There was just an abundance of things that I had to overcome. Being able to vote was one of the things, one of the many things, that I lost when I became a felon.” 

In Virginia, anyone convicted of a felony automatically loses their civil rights — the right to vote, serve on a jury, run for office, become a notary public and carry a firearm. The power to restore civil rights, not including firearms rights, lies in the hands of the governor. 

“I had several jail stays. Most of my charges were prescription fraud and fraudulent credit card fraud. And it was really just to support my habit that I had created for myself,” Trinidad said. “That's how I ended up incarcerated. Nothing violent, but at the end of the day, pretty serious felonies.”

Trinidad said after her sentence was over, it was difficult to reacclimate to society. 

“There's probation, there's voting rights, there's gun rights, there's driver's license, everything with the [Department of Motor Vehicles], there's so much stuff that comes after [incarceration],” she said. “It's almost like, even after you're done with your sentence, you still pay for that for years to come.” 

Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell told VPM News Focal Point that it’s smart government to make sure that when a person walks out of state penitentiary that they’ve got the skills, attitude and ability to go back to work and have a second chance. 

McDonnell decided to act when he became governor and inherited the direct authority to do something significant regarding rights restoration. 

In May 2013, McDonnell’s administration implemented a program to automatically restore civil rights through the executive branch. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, this act ended Virginia’s policy of perman­ently disen­fran­chising all citizens with felony convic­tions. 

“I felt that because I've been in law enforcement most of my life that I gave permission to Republicans that it was OK to be for restoration rights,” McDonnell said. “It wasn't soft on crime, because we had plenty of things that our team did to toughen the penalties and hold people accountable for harm to society. But it's completely different to instill a philosophy that it's smart government, and it's the right thing to do in a nation of second chances to get people back on their feet.” 

McDonnell’s program impacted people completing sentences for convictions classified as non-violent.  

“I remember 2013 very well, when Governor Bob McDonnell streamlined the rights restoration process. The restoration of voting rights for returning citizens has been an issue that our organization and our community members have cared deeply about for years,” said Tram Nguyen, co-executive director of New Virginia Majority.

New Virginia Majority was founded in 2007 to engage communities that have been traditionally underrepresented and to create space for them to engage politically and understand the role of government. 

“[McDonnell] eliminated waiting periods for folks with nonviolent crimes, got rid of that onerous application process. It was a huge victory for a lot of our folks because it made people feel that they were being listened to and that they mattered,” Nguyen said. “And here was a governor who was willing to give them an opportunity, a second chance. It started with Bob McDonnell in terms of expanding the access to voting rights for folks that were formerly incarcerated.”

Between former governors McDonnell, Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam, hundreds of Virginians have had their rights restored.  

“Terry McAuliffe just blew our records right away, because he went overboard. He did it in such an automated way that he was restoring [the] rights of people that were still in prison. And of course, he got a lot of blowback,” McDonnell said. “There were lawsuits on that, but I think I think people have found the equilibrium now. Governor Northam continued it [and] from what I've seen so far, Governor Youngkin's continuing that in a significant fashion.” 

Trinidad’s rights were restored under Northam. She said she remembered being super excited when she got the letter telling her the news and couldn’t wait to register and vote again. 

“The act of voting symbolizes to me that I have done a good job acclimating myself back to society,” Trinidad said. “That my voice and my opinion matters. And now that I have that right, I'm registered to vote. I recently moved and I've updated my address so that I can vote for local officials in my new area.”  

 “One of the absolute fundamental, fundamental principles of America is the great equalizer is the American franchise to vote,” McDonnell said. “Everybody's vote counts the same way. Doesn't matter if you're a Ph.D., or you're an eighth-grade dropout. Everybody's vote counts the same.”   

People seeking restoration of their civil rights are encouraged to contact the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office.  

  • To be eligible for restoration of civil rights, an individual must be free from any term of incarceration resulting from felony conviction(s). 

  • Individuals are encouraged to contact the Secretary of the Commonwealth to request restoration of their civil rights by clicking here or by calling (804) 692-0104. 

  • The Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office also works with the Department of Corrections to proactively identify individuals who have been released and may be eligible to have their rights restored.  

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