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CNN "CNN Newsroom" - Transcript - Voting Rights for Felons


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MALVEAUX: With all the partisanship and politics these days, it's pretty rare that you have a Republican governor and the president of the NAACP that would find common ground. But that is the case, the very case in Virginia.

Civil rights group is applauding Virginia's governor for pushing to automatically restore voting rights to nonviolent felons. NAACP president, Ben Jealous, Governor Bob McDonnell joining us.

And good to see you both. You guys know you're in a split screen, you're together.

Ben, you had joked earlier the Republicans that you've worked with, you do great things together, they don't dare sit beside you. You're side-by-side.


Governor, tell us, why so public? Why this was important to you?

GOV. BOB MCDONNELL (R), VIRGINIA: Well, first of all, I was standing by Ben two days ago. So I'd be honored to do that. We've worked together on this. It's important. Voting and being able to own and bear a firearm, these are constitutional rights and they only should be deprived during these periods of punishments.

But what I've said is, once a felon, a nonviolent felon is finished with their probation, their parole, their incarceration and they paid their debt to society, meaning their restitution, their fines and costs and have no pending felony charges, then we should restore their rights right away.

And that's what I've decided to do, Suzanne, because we're a nation of second chances. People make mistakes, but we want to get them back into society fully re-integrated. We're people of faith that believe in restoration and redemption. And, you know, the more people we get back out in society, 95 percent of prisoners, are going to get released, the more of them that will be productive citizens, the better society will be.

And that's why we've done it. And it will be an automatic restoration process taking the subjectivity and the whims of the governor out of it. And I appreciate Ben and the NAACP and many other civil rights groups helping us to get this done.

MALVEAUX: Ben, tell us how this came about and what does this actually mean for the community? The voting community? The population now?

BEN JEALOUS, NAACP PRESIDENT: You know, there has been a building movement in this state for decades. And when I sat down with Bob a few years ago, we realized that on this issue of redemption we had common ground and that we could move forward on this issue.

Now what happened when he signed this is that we are now moving. It will just be a matter of days, maybe two months tops, before 100,000 to 200,000 Virginians who hereto forth had a lifetime ban on their voting will be able to vote.

We are a country that believes in second chances. And we're a country that believes that voting is a right, not a privilege, but a right. And in this state for 112 years there has been a lifetime ban on people voting if they ever committed a felony. And it was put in place for the most horrible of reasons. You know, a delegate, delegate glass at the convention in 1901 when this was put into the state's constitution that said because of this plan the darky will be eliminated as a factor in our state' politics in less than five years.

And so what the governor made it quite frankly make it easier for people to heal themselves, for communities for hear -- you know, to heal and for the state to heal. And that's very important.

MALVEAUX: It's interesting, Ben, that you have that reference. It's a very, you know, offensive reference when you use that quote, when you say darky, obviously that's applying to African-Americans.

Governor, I want to ask you because there will be skeptics who will say, well, perhaps you are bringing this forward to give rights to African-Americans for Republicans to gain more support for your party. There is certainly a movement for broadening out the base, if you will. How do you respond to that?

MCDONNELL: Well, listen, there are actually I think more white convicted felons than African-Americans. So this is a justice issue, Suzanne. It affects people of all ages, races and social classes. And to me, as Ben said, it's a matter of justice. And it's smart government. If you get people released from prison and we have a very active prison re-entry system, we're now restoring civil rights, I've restored more than any governor in history, our recidivism rights down to 23 percent, that means less calls to prisons, that means less new victims.

Sp it's really smart. You know, our "Declaration of Independence has" this really important principle that the government gets its just powers from the consent of the governed. And if you're going to be able to give consent, you've got to be able to vote. And I think this is such an important fundamental right. When you're done with your debt to society, you ought to get reintegrated and be able to vote. That's why I've done it. I've been working source for a couple of years.

MALVEAUX: All right. And to both of you before we go real quickly here, you know, Washington sometimes you look at it as a hot mess. People are not able to talk to each other much less work together. Any advice here?


MALVEAUX: Is there an opening year where you can -- you know, words of wisdom for those guys who are just not able to work together?

JEALOUS: You know, one of the reasons that this happened was that the governor said, look, I will meet with the NAACP every single quarter. And so our folks there have met with him again and again and again and each time finding common ground and ways to move forward.

Now it's not important that we agree on all things. But it is important that when -- where we can agree on big things that we identify that quickly and we move them forward. That's what people in this country yearn for. And that's why this is so important. And we also say that, you know, there's a lot of Republicans who have said we won't do this because we think it will give us more Democrats. As more people white than black tend to go that way.


JEALOUS: And then we've had frankly Democrats who said well, we don't want to do this because we don't want to appear to be soft on crime. And so what Bob did is just simply courageous and it's the right thing.

MALVEAUX: All right. We've got to leave it there. It's a nice refreshing story here that we have really two -- sometimes two opposite sides working in cohesion together. Thank you so much, Governor, as well as Ben. Appreciate it very much.

MCDONNELL: Thanks, Suzanne.

JEALOUS: Thank you.

MALVEAUX: Have a good weekend.

MCDONNELL: Thank you.


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