Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli reverses course, backs voting rights for felons

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Local,Virginia,Steve Contorno

Virginia Democrats on Tuesday accused Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli of flip-flopping after the gubernatorial candidate unveiled proposals to restore voting rights of nonviolent felons, an initiative he once claimed only created more Democratic voters.

As a state senator, Cuccinelli consistently voted against bills and proposed constitutional amendments that would give voting powers and other civil rights back to felons. In a letter to supporters in 2008, the Republican said that then-Gov. Tim Kaine wanted to restore those rights because he and his fellow Democrats "view criminals as a voting bloc."

On Tuesday, though, Cuccinelli unveiled the report of a bipartisan state committee that he set up to advise future governors how to lawfully restore civil rights to nonviolent offenders. Cuccinelli also called for greater collaboration between the state and faith-based groups working on behalf of former convicts seeking the reinstatement of their rights.

Cuccinelli's commission made clear that the state constitution grants only the governor, and not the General Assembly, the power to restore rights to felons. But the commission concluded lawmakers could set aside money to help the governor take on the heavy backlog of cases. He also said he would back a constitutional amendment that would allow voting rights to be automatically restored but said such a measure is unlikely to clear the legislature.

"I believe we need a simpler way for individuals who want to return their place to society to be given a second chance," said Cuccinelli.

Even before the committee's findings were released, Democrats hounded Cuccinelli for his about-face, accusing the Republican of election-year pandering.

"If Ken Cuccinelli really believed in automatic restoration of rights for people who pay their debt to society, he had every opportunity to prove it with his vote," said Del. Charniele Herring, chairwoman of the state Democratic Party. "Instead, he and his extreme allies stood in the way and blocked efforts."

Terry McAuliffe, Cuccinelli's Democratic opponent this fall, came out in support of a constitutional amendment that would make restoration of rights automatic -- without the governor's intervention -- and vowed to be proactive as governor to review cases of nonviolent felons.

Cuccinelli said he didn't believe such an amendment could survive the drawn-out approval process, which takes two years and a ballot referendum. Virginians last voted in 1982 on the issue of restoring felons' voting rights and rejected it.

Cuccinelli said his change of heart came during his time as attorney general, when Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell restored the rights of more felons than any previous administration.

"When I was in the Senate, I wasn't very supportive of restoration of rights. I thought it was punishment for being a felon," said Cuccinelli. "Over time, I changed my position. I felt rights restoration was good for society overall."

scontorno@washingtonexaminer.com

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