Republicans fall in line against final push to expand felon voting rights in Virginia

‘They are afraid of letting people on their side vote their conscience’

By: - March 3, 2022 5:28 pm
Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, speaks to supporters of the felon voting rights amendment during a rally on Capitol Square. (Photo by Graham Moomaw)

Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, speaks to supporters of the felon voting rights amendment during a rally on Capitol Square. (Photo by Graham Moomaw)

One of the proposals to automatically restore felons’ voting rights in Virginia once they’ve done their time had three Republican sponsors in the GOP-led House of Delegates.

That would seem to be enough for the pending constitutional amendment doing away with lifetime felon disenfranchisement to pass if put to a full vote in a chamber with a 52-48 Republican majority. But as supporters try a last-ditch push to make that happen, few are optimistic House GOP leaders will change course. 

That means the decision of six Republicans who voted to kill the proposal in an early-morning subcommittee meeting this week will probably be the final say on the matter for the 2022 session.  If that stands, it will fall to new Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin to decide whether he will use his executive power to continue the lenient rights restoration policies of recent governors, which have led to hundreds of thousands of Virginians regaining their rights, or enact a more stringent approach.

Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, who sponsored the amendment in the Senate, said House Republicans are afraid to advance it to a vote because they know it would pass.

“They are afraid of letting people on their side vote their conscience,” Locke said.

In an unusual twist, one Republican, Del. Karen Greenhalgh, R-Virginia Beach, had signed up to sponsor the resolution before falling in line against it.

In a brief interview Thursday, Greenhalgh said her views on the matter had evolved as the session went on, specifically on the question of whether people leaving incarceration should have to pay off any restitution they owe before regaining their rights. 

Republicans have pushed for that requirement to be a part of any reform effort, arguing people leaving prison should have to make amends for infringing on the rights of others. But the amendment Democrats drafted and approved last year didn’t include it, because those who support stronger reform say fundamental rights shouldn’t be tied to whether someone can afford to pay to get them back.

“I think we just need to rewrite it so it’s more clear and those issues are addressed,” Greenhalgh said.

Because constitutional amendments have to pass in the exact same form two years in a row before going to voters for final approval, rewriting the felon voting rights amendment isn’t an option in the current session. Greenhalgh said she would consider a new version of the amendment in future sessions, without making a clear commitment.

“I’ve learned to not give a firm statement until I see what’s actually written,” said Greenhalgh, who’s serving her first term in the House after narrowly flipping a Democratic-held seat last fall.

At a rally Thursday morning on Capitol Square, supporters of the amendment called for pressure on Republican leaders standing in the way of a proposal that passed the state Senate with bipartisan support. Many characterized it as a matter of racial justice, noting felon disenfranchisement historically went hand-in-hand with the overcriminalization of Black Virginians.

“We have to get this done. We have worked too hard and too long,” said Sheba Williams of the offender re-entry group Nolef Turns. “We have survived this pandemic. We still are living through the epidemic of racism. And we should not allow this to be the stain that lies on our state’s Constitution anymore.”

House Republicans, even those who support the amendment, have stood firm against Democratic efforts to bring it directly to a floor vote. House Majority Leader Terry Kilgore, R-Scott, asked delegates to respect the normal process of debate and deliberation, a line both parties have used when in the majority to reject attempts to bypass committees and bring legislation straight to the floor. He also suggested that if Democrats wanted more Republican buy-in, they should have taken Republican concerns about the amendment’s specifics more seriously when it was being drafted, before the GOP regained control of the chamber.

“We believe in redemption,” Kilgore said. “We believe that those who fully serve their felony sentence should be able to participate in society and have a say in their communities. But we have to get it right.”

In an interview, Del. Carrie Coyner, R-Chesterfield, who supported the amendment last year but stuck with her party by voting against fast-tracking it to the floor, said she plans to hold her colleagues to their promises that they could support a future amendment with “fixes” Republicans want.

“I am very supportive of getting it out to voters as quickly as possible,” Coyner said.

If the amendment fails this year as expected, the earliest a new version could go to voters would be the fall of 2024. On that timeline, it would need to pass in the 2023 and 2024 sessions, with an election in between that will determine which party controls each chamber.

First-term Del. Mike Cherry, R-Colonial Heights, who sponsored the resolution in the House, has also refrained from publicly pressuring his caucus on the issue, despite publishing a January op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch saying Virginia “must act now” to safeguard the rights of “returning citizens.”

Absent in the debate this year is new Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin. Under the current constitutional system, he has the power to restore voting rights to ex-offenders he deems worthy. If the amendment were to pass, that process would become automatic under whatever criteria the General Assembly can agree to.

“Speak up, Governor Youngkin,” Locke said at Thursday’s rally. “And let the people vote.”

Youngkin’s office did not respond Thursday to a request for comment.

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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.