The plight of the nonviolent felon has been a losing cause in Northern Virginia for decades. Year after year, Democrats introduce a bill that would restore voting rights for nonviolent felons. And year after year, the effort fizzles in Richmond. So when Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell announced his support for automatic restoration of civil rights for nonviolent felons, many believed this might finally be the year supporters could see some action on the issue.
“As a nation that believes in redemption and second chances, we must provide a clear path for willing individuals to be productive members of society once they have served their sentences and paid their fines and restitution,” said McDonnell. “It is time for Virginia to join most of the other states and make the restoration of civil rights an automatic process for nonviolent offenders.”
Within minutes of the speech, a number of civil-rights advocacy groups spoke out in support of the governor’s push. The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia praised the effort as a way to shed “this vestige of the Jim Crow era.” Virginia Organizing and Virginia New Majority also issued written statements supporting the effort, which now had bipartisan appeal. State Sen. Don McEachin (D-9) even called on the governor to name the legislation in honor of the late state Sen. Yvonne Miller (D-5), who was a longtime advocate for restoring civil rights to nonviolent felons.
Then House Republicans pulled the rug out.
During a Monday meeting of the House Subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments, members of the Republican majority rejected a bill introduced by Del. Charniele Herring (D-46). House Republicans indicated that they were willing to break with the Republican governor, the Republican lieutenant governor and the Republican attorney general — a demonstration of diversity in a party that usually speaks in lockstep on major issues.
“A number of Republicans stood up on the floor of the House and essentially attacked the governor for supporting this,” said Del. Rob Krupicka (D-45). “It’s clear they don’t intend to follow his wishes.”
THE EFFORT is still alive on the Senate side, where state Sen. Louise Lucas (D-18) introduced SJ 266. On Tuesday, a Senate subcommittee was deadlocked on the issue and cast a 3-to-3 vote. That means the bill will move on to the next meeting of the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections next week without a recommendation. Supporters are hopeful that they can get the issue out of committee and onto consideration by the full Senate, which is evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. Because Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling has already announced his support for the initiative, he could end up casting a tie-breaking vote in favor of automatic restoration.
“The House of Delegates still has time to reverse their course by voting for the Senate’s version of the bill,” said John Liss, executive director of Virginia New Majority. “Automatic rights restoration opens the door for those convicted of non-violent felonies to become full participants in our community.”
Currently, more than 350,000 Virginians have been stripped of their right to vote. That’s more than one in five African Americans and 7 percent of the adult population. The way things currently stand, only the governor has authority to restore rights. Since he became governor in 2011, McDonnell has restored rights to more than 4,000 people — more than any other governor in history. And yet even though the Republican governor has signaled that the issue is important to him, many Republicans oppose the move because it would increase the power of Democrats.
“If you are thinking about this in political terms, the majority of felons who would get their rights restored are probably more likely to vote Democratic than Republican,” said Geoff Skelley, analyst with the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “If you’re a Republican, why would you support it?”
FOR NOW, the effort is still alive on the Senate side. But even supporters acknowledge that it will have a very difficult time if it makes it back to the House after crossover. Even if the measure is able to get out of the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee on Tuesday, it will still face a vote of the full Senate and, ultimately, the same hostile members of the House subcommittee that already killed the effort this week. Then the bill must pass again next year after the election before ultimately being considered by the voters.
“We must not lose the chance to put this question before the voters in 2014,” said ACLU of Virginia executive director Claire Gastanaga. “For too long, Virginia has been out of step with the rest of the country by continuing to disenfranchise all felons for life.”