Virginia Mercury: Virginia Democrats push to end constitutional rule stripping felons of voting rights

By Graham Moomaw, 1/12/2021

The last three Virginia governors — a Republican and two Democrats — have made it much easier for people convicted of felonies to have their voting rights restored by the governor’s office.

If some lawmakers get their way, felons rejoining society will no longer have to rely on the benevolence of future governors to be able to vote again.

Instead, they’d get their rights back automatically after serving their time. Or, if policymakers choose to add Virginia to the handful of states that allow inmates to vote while incarcerated, they’d never lose the right to begin with.

Several high-profile Democrats, including Gov. Ralph Northam, are lining up behind the idea of a constitutional amendment to scrap Virginia’s lifetime disenfranchisement policy for people with felonies, which many see as a racist relic of a Jim Crow-era system built to suppress the Black vote.

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Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who made streamlining rights restoration a major goal of his first term, issued a news release Monday calling for the passage of a rights restoration amendment, saying he’d “work tirelessly” to make sure it passes again in 2022 if he’s elected to a second term later this year. 

“There is no more fundamental right than the ability to participate in our democratic process, and restoring voting rights to 173,000 Virginians is one of the proudest accomplishments of my life,” McAuliffe said in a release from his gubernatorial campaign.

For a constitutional amendment to be approved in Virginia, the General Assembly has to pass it twice, with elections in between the two votes. Then it needs approval from voters in a statewide ballot referendum.

McAuliffe’s release also noted that Virginia House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, will be sponsoring an amendment in the House. Herring, a co-chair of McAuliffe’s campaign, said in the release it’s “time to go big and be bold to ensure equity in voting rights for all Virginians.”

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When McAuliffe took executive action to restore voting rights to more than 200,000 people with felonies in 2016, Republicans said he had taken an overly broad approach that gave little attention to the particular crime committed, treating violent and non-violent offenders the same. 

After Republican General Assembly leaders sued McAuliffe over the move, the Supreme Court of Virginia partly agreed, ruling that McAuliffe could not restore rights en masse with no review of each individual case. Republicans have also argued ex-offenders should have to pay all fines and fees before having their rights restored, an idea many Democrats say creates more unnecessary barriers to voting.

Despite the court setback, McAuliffe was still able to keep up a swift pace of restorations, a policy that has continued during Northam’s administration. 

Northam has completed roughly 40,000 rights restorations so far, according to Secretary of the Commonwealth Kelly Thomasson, whose office oversees the process.

The amendment being backed by the governor, Yarmosky said, would essentially codify the way things have been done under the Northam and McAuliffe administrations.

“The criteria set forth in this amendment are the same criteria for restoration of rights that have been used by Virginia governors for the past six-plus years,” said Yarmosky, Northam’s spokeswoman. “While the current restoration process is at the governor’s discretion and takes anywhere from one to three months, this amendment will ensure that anyone convicted of a felony in Virginia will always have an avenue for having their rights restored — regardless of who is in the governor’s office.”

McAuliffe supports the same proposal backed by Northam, according to his campaign.

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