Va. Senate passes constitutional amendment on felon voting rights

RICHMOND — Amid heated debate that invoked Virginia’s racist past, the state Senate narrowly backed a proposed constitutional amendment Tuesday that would change how and whether felons get their voting rights back in the state.

“Right now it varies from governor to governor,” said Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, the resolution’s sponsor. “There is no criteria by which it goes from administration to administration, and consequently, there is no consistent expectation on ‘what I must do as a convicted felon to have my rights restored,’ because there is nothing that is articulated as to what is required or expected of me, and I would suggest to you that that is almost a capricious situation.”

The amendment would retain Virginia’s rule that those convicted of felonies lose their voting rights, but would require governors to set up a process to automatically restore the rights of nonviolent felons when they have completed their sentences, including payment of all fines, fees or restitution and serving of any time on probation or parole.

However, it also would restrict what is now a broad power of the governor to restore voting rights for any felon. In addition to any other rules that could be prescribed by law, the governor would only be able to restore the rights of felons who apply at least five years after paying all fines and fees and completing any probation, parole or suspended sentence, and who had not had any new felony convictions or “misdemeanor convictions involving moral turpitude” in the intervening years.

Democratic Sen. Mamie Locke, of Hampton, objected to the amendment: “I am somewhat baffled as to why, in a democracy — which means government by the people — we continue to create barriers to citizens’ participation in a basic process of that democracy, which is voting. This is a cynical, dishonest and disingenuous proposal that the people of Virginia will surely reject.”

Virginia constitutional amendments must be approved by the General Assembly in two separate years with a statewide election in between, and then must be approved by voters. The House of Delegates killed similar proposals in committee that were introduced by members in the first part of the session, and the same committee is now expected to take up the Senate resolution.

“It has taken centuries for this country to live up to the concept of ‘We the people’ and become inclusive, yet this measure seeks to engage in voter suppression of the highest order,” Locke said.

Norment, a Republican, pointed out that Senate Democrats backed a similar, although much broader, restoration of rights proposal in 2013. That proposal provided nonviolent felons would get their rights restored automatically, and the governor would maintain the ability to restore the rights of violent felons.

“You broke the law, and that’s what creates the barrier — not any Senate joint resolution,” Norment said.

“Unbelievable that there would be such a total disregard for the decisions that are made by an independent judiciary, and you know what? That judiciary does not impose that sentence [depending on] whether you are black, white, red, purple or green,” he added.

Norment said he was glad in a way that Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, attempted to restore the rights of more than 200,000 Virginians last year, because it “caused me to pause and think more thoroughly on this issue.”

“To invoke a comparison with a poll tax on this bill is inexcusable. Absolutely inexcusable. To hearken back to E. Carter Glass in 1902 and to invoke that on this bill is equally inexcusable,” Norment said.

Two Democratic senators from Fairfax County cited that former state senator during debate over this measure.

“He did this to keep the blacks from voting. No other reason. That was it. And he stated that when he put it into effect. That’s what he did,” Sen. Dick Saslaw said.

“Whether it may be a poll tax or not, the net effect is the same. And we know why … that poll tax was put into effect, and so did the U.S. Supreme Court.” Saslaw added.

“What I can’t get past is 1902, when Sen. E. Carter Glass [said] ‘Don’t worry, we have taken care of’ — and he didn’t use these words, he used vile words, but that ‘We have taken care of the African-American voting problem here in the Commonwealth of Virginia.’ I don’t know all the history, what went on before or since, but it seems to me now what we’re attempting to do is give back in stages what we took away all at once for the very worst reasons,” Sen. Dave Marsden said.

Republican Sen. David Sueterlein said the ban on felons voting had been in the state constitution for years before 1902, going back to 1830.

“I don’t endorse everything that was in those constitutions, but we know what was happening in 1830, and they were not allowing African-Americans to vote, period, regardless of their felony status. This was something that the commonwealth adopted in 1830 to prevent folks that had committed a felony of any sort from voting. It was a law-and-order provision; that is what it was,” Sueterlein said.

Saslaw said that made an even better case for restoration of rights with fewer limits.

“If you don’t like the bill,” Norment said, “or if you feel that you’re bent over because of the governor’s pressure on you, I understand it and I respect it, because I’ve been there, but don’t give me these spurious arguments that are completely contrary to the intent of this bill. Don’t invoke what happened in 1902 to try to stir up some emotions on this thing.”

The vote was 21-19.

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