Advocates for the poor say this will result in far fewer people having their rights restored. Kent Willis, an ACLU official in Virginia called the essay requirement "a nearly insurmountable obstacle'' for people with a limited education. And he added that many felons would be intimidated, reducing the number of applicants.
The Secretary of the Commonwealth, Janet Polarek, whose office handles the applications, told the Washington Post that the new system "gives all applicants the opportunity to have their cases heard and have their full stories told,"
But the move has provoked an outcry. The Virginia Black Legislative Caucus called the move "a horrific step back towards the era of Jim Crow." One member of the caucus told the Post: "This is designed to suppress the rights of poor people."
Democratic state legislators charged that McDonnell "is returning to a 'blank sheet' voter registration system that in the past disenfranchised many African American voters." The state Democratic Party also condemned the move, though it didn't dare make a moral case on behalf of felons, instead arguing that the new system would "bury the Secretary of the Commonwealth's office in unnecessary paperwork."
About 300,000 felons in the state have served their time, but still do not have the right to vote. Only Virginia and Kentucky make felons apply to the governor to restore their voting rights.
This is by no means the first sign that McDonnell, who took over as governor in January, intends to move Virginia in a conservative direction. In February, McDonnell rolled back discrimination protections for gay state workers. And he recently declared April Confederate History Month, in a proclamation that at first made no mention of slavery.
Late Update (4/14/10): McDonnell's office is now saying that the move is merely a "draft policy proposal" and that nothing has been decided upon.