Signs at a polling location in Buckingham County, Va., November 3, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce / For the Virginia Mercury)
A Virginia House of Delegates panel on Monday expanded a felon voting rights proposal to allow former inmates to vote when they’re released from incarceration, a change potentially allowing their rights to be restored years earlier than envisioned under the plan’s prior rules.
As originally drafted, the proposed constitutional amendment would have automatically restored felons’ civil rights after they had completed their sentence and any period of supervised probation.
But some Democratic lawmakers said they preferred a simpler solution, one that wouldn’t complicate the rights restoration process by tying it to a probation period or an ex-offender’s ability to pay fines and fees after their release.
“To me, completion of sentence of imprisonment is a very clear, bright-line standard,” said Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, the chairman of the House’s subcommittee on constitutional amendments.
During a subcommittee hearing Monday, a representative of Gov. Ralph Northam told House members the administration would support that approach. The panel amended the proposal accordingly.
The proposal has not yet been voted on by the full House, and a similar measure in the Senate has not yet been taken up in committee. But Monday’s hearing offered a glimpse of how key policy decisions on felon voting might play out over the rest of the General Assembly session.
Some Democrats and voting advocacy groups are pushing to end felon disenfranchisement altogether, arguing the right to vote is so fundamental that people convicted of crimes should be allowed to continue to cast ballots from their cells.
“It’s time for you to be bold and move this conversation from restoring votes to giving people the right to vote,” ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga told the subcommittee Monday.
Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, the chairman of the House Privileges and Elections Committee, said he supports that concept generally. But because the amendment needs final approval from voters in a ballot referendum that could happen in 2022, he said, making the conversation about voting from jail could jeopardize the larger reform effort.
“I would hate to risk this progress, which I think is really important,” Simon said.
Whatever form the proposal ends up taking, the General Assembly would have to approve the exact same version next year before it could be sent to the voters.
Many Republicans have been supportive of relaxing Virginia’s policy, which prevents all felons from voting unless a governor has taken action to restore their rights. But some have also cautioned against blanket restoration, insisting the nature of the offense committed and whether debts have been paid should factor into the process.
Del. Chris Head, R-Roanoke, said leaving some limitations in place would prevent a major erosion of conservative support.
“As a Christian, personally, my faith is all about grace,” Head said. “That means that there is a point where you have to have a road back.”
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