Why a Republican legislator wants to make it easier for ex-offenders to vote

By: - January 17, 2022 12:02 am

Del. Mike Cherry, R-Colonial Heights, center, on the floor of the House of Delegates after being sworn into office. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Mike Cherry says it’s his religious faith, and the Republican Party’s distant history of expanding voting rights to African Americans and women, that led him to sponsor legislation many wouldn’t expect to see from the modern-day GOP.

A Richmond-area pastor just sworn into office, Cherry’s first legislative package includes a top priority for voting-rights groups: ending Virginia’s lifetime disenfranchisement policy for people convicted of felonies.

Democrats got that process started last year by giving initial approval to a constitutional amendment that would automatically restore voting rights to ex-offenders once they’re free from incarceration. But whether that proposal goes to voters in a ballot referendum this fall depends on what Republicans do in the House of Delegates, where the GOP won back a narrow majority last year.

“It’s become a partisan issue that I don’t think should be a partisan issue,” Cherry said in an interview. “If you go back and look at, historically, the Republican Party has been the party that advocated for voting rights. …To me this is just a continuing of that legacy. We want to be the party that is for constitutional rights.”

A pastor at Life Church and former member of the Colonial Heights City Council, Cherry was elected last year in the competitive district former House Speaker Kirk Cox held for 30 years. Being a pastor, he said, is part of what makes him a believer in “second chances.”

“My faith teaches me that people make mistakes, and they can be redeemed from those mistakes and become, in this case, contributing members to society again,” Cherry said. “I don’t think we should impose lifetime restrictions and punishments on people when the courts did not deem it necessary to give them a life sentence.”

In practice, it’s now fairly easy for people with felonies to regain their voting rights. However, under the current system, governors still have to issue a certificate restoring those rights. Recent governors have taken an expansive approach to that work, restoring rights to hundreds of thousands of Virginians over the last eight years. But supporters of the amendment say the process should be made automatic, with fundamental rights no longer dependent on the views of whoever occupies the governor’s office.

The proposal has formed unexpected alliances, with libertarian-leaning Americans for Prosperity-Virginia and the ACLU of Virginia both signaling support. 

“Both Democratic and Republican governors have increasingly used their power to restore rights to thousands of citizens,” said Mary Bauer, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia. “So our message will be… we need to let the voters decide.” 

Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, who is also sponsoring the measure in the House, said she hopes having a Republican sponsor onboard will help get it through.

“I think that most voters in Virginia would support it,” Herring said. “I’m hopeful, but I know that there’s a lot of work ahead of us.”

In order to be placed on voters’ ballots, proposed amendments to the Virginia Constitution have to pass the General Assembly twice in the exact same form.

The amendment passed the state Senate last year and will likely pass again. It could potentially have enough bipartisan support to pass the House, where Republicans hold a 52-48 majority. But with Republicans filing dozens of bills to roll back new Democratic laws meant to make voting easier, whether the amendment ever gets to a floor vote is an open question.

First, it has to clear the House Privileges and Elections Committee, where Republicans have a 12-10 majority. That committee has several new Republican legislators who weren’t around to vote on the proposal in 2021, but senior Republicans on the panel opposed it.

The amendment cannot be changed, meaning if it fails this year, the two-year cycle would have to start over with a new round of negotiations over what form it should take. In the past, some Republicans have insisted rights restoration should only come after ex-offenders have paid off all court fees and victim restitution. That suggestion has drawn strong pushback from Democrats who feel voting shouldn’t be contingent on ability to pay.

Constitutional amendments don’t require sign-off from the governor since voters have the final say. New Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin has not yet indicated if he supports or opposes the legislation.

When Kay Coles James, Youngkin’s nominee for secretary of the commonwealth, made an introductory appearance last week before the House elections committee, she was asked if the Youngkin administration plans to continue the lenient approach to rights restoration adopted by former Govs. Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam.

“It’s not about numbers. It’s about people,” said James, a former president of the conservative Heritage Foundation. “And every single request that comes into that office will be given great consideration… And I know that this particular governor is one who believes in second chances, and a governor that believes in justice and mercy. So I think you’re going to be pleased at what you see in this area.”

Cabinet pick to ‘change the trajectory of the commonwealth’

In her new role, James will handle petitions Youngkin receives for civil rights restorations and pardons. She told the committee that as someone who grew up in Creighton Court, a public housing complex in Richmond, she has family and friends who’ve been through the criminal justice system and understands the plight of those trying to re-enter society.

“I am proud of the fact that I’m a projects kid,” she said.

She dodged when asked if the Youngkin administration has a position on the amendment making rights restoration automatic.

“I don’t want to opine on the legislation,” James said. “I have not seen it.”

Asked last Thursday how confident he is he’ll win enough support from GOP colleagues to get the proposal through the House, Cherry laughed.

“No idea,” he said. “It’s my second day here.”

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.