Election official with voting stickers at Robious Elementary School in Midlothian, Va., November 5, 2019. (Parker Michels-Boyce/Virginia Mercury)
A Republican-led House of Delegates committee voted Tuesday to block a pending constitutional amendment that would automatically restore voting rights to felons once they regain their freedom.
If it holds, the decision will prevent Virginia voters from weighing in on the issue in a ballot referendum this fall, a major setback for voting-rights advocates who have spent years pushing to end Virginia’s lifetime disenfranchisement policy for people convicted of felonies, which falls disproportionately on Black communities.
Some Republicans and conservative groups supported the proposal, which had passed the General Assembly last year under Democratic control and needed to pass again in order to go to voters. But its opponents won out an early-morning subcommittee meeting, where it was defeated on a 5-4, party-line vote.
That vote came despite support from a diverse coalition that included the American Conservative Union, Americans for Prosperity Virginia, the ACLU of Virginia, the Legal Aid Justice Center, the League of Women Voters of Virginia, the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, the Virginia Catholic Conference and the Virginia NAACP. No one spoke in opposition.
Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, one of the amendment’s sponsors, said the vote appears to be the end of the line for the amendment for the immediate future.
“It’s extremely disappointing when you see this support that’s across the political spectrum,” Herring said. “For a lot of people it’s a question of faith and just forgiveness.”
The subcommittee did not take up a version of the proposal sponsored by Del. Mike Cherry, R-Colonial Heights, who had argued it fit squarely within the GOP’s purported defense of constitutional rights. Republicans in charge of the panel only heard the version sponsored by Herring, avoiding having to vote to kill the amendment sponsored by one of their own members.
The subcommittee was unswayed by conservative testimony in favor of the amendment.
“’We want to reintegrate people that have served their time that may have kids in school, that may be productive members of society, but can’t have a voice,” said Kaitlin Owens, deputy director of advocacy at the American Conservative Union’s Nolan Center for Justice. “This is a way we can do that.”
During the hearing, the five Republicans who voted the amendment down offered little rationale for their position beyond the fact it wouldn’t require people with felonies to pay all restitution and fees before regaining their voting rights.
“So none of that is included,” Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt, the subcommittee’s chairman, said while questioning Herring. “Very good.”
Head declined to elaborate on his position when approached by a reporter after the vote, saying he had to get to another meeting and had said all he wished to say.
The Democratic-controlled state Senate can send over its version of the proposal for another vote in the House. But it’s unclear if the outcome in the subcommittee would be any different the second time.
The apparent failure of the effort to change the felon disenfranchisement policy in the state Constitution means ex-offenders will have to rely on Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin to restore their voting rights. The Youngkin administration had not wieghed in on the proposed amendment making that process automatic.
Democrats noted that the only Republican on the subcommittee who could face a competitive re-election fight, Del. Karen Greenhalgh, R-Virginia Beach, was absent for Tuesday’s meeting. Voting in her place was Del. Margaret Ransone, R-Westmoreland, who chairs the House Priveleges and Elections Committee and represents a reliably red district.
In a brief interview, Ransone said she opposed the felon voting proposal because she thinks the current rights restoration system, which allows governors to be as strict or as lenient as they wish to be, works fine.
“We have a process and place now for them to go and get their rights restored,” Ransone said.
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