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

Virginia Democrats push to end constitutional rule stripping felons of voting rights
"I Voted" stickers spread out on a table at a polling place in Richmond. (Source: Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

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.

In most states, felons automatically regain their civil rights after they’ve completed their sentence or post-release supervision. Under Virginia’s disenfranchisement policy, felons can’t regain their rights without action by the governor. People with felonies previously had to ask governors for permission to be able to vote again, but the process has been loosened over the past decade to be as automatic as legally possible under the policy laid out in the Constitution.

With the 2021 General Assembly session set to begin Wednesday, Northam has said a proposal for automatic rights restoration is a top priority for his administration.

“Governor Northam is proposing a constitutional amendment that would allow any individual — upon completion of their sentence of imprisonment or active supervision — to automatically have their political rights restored, including the right to vote,” Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said in an email.

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.

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