Amid a contentious debate over felon voting in Virginia, a group of Democratic lawmakers proposed a constitutional amendment Thursday to end the state's policy of stripping political rights from all felons and forcing them to apply later in life to get them back.
The amendment, patroned by Del. Marcus B. Simon, D-Fairfax, would strike the sentence from the state Constitution that says no felon is allowed to vote unless his or her political rights have been restored by the governor. In a news release, Simon pitched the amendment as a way to better reflect modern Virginia and move away from the "racially motivated politics of a bygone era."
"This language is a relic of Virginia’s 1902 'Jim Crow' Constitution, which included a laundry list of those not deemed fit to vote, a list that included ‘idiots,' ‘insane persons,’ and ‘paupers’ as well as those who had participated in duel," Simon said in a prepared statement. "Call me politically correct if you will, but I think Virginia has come a long way since then."
Simon's amendment will likely be a tough sell in the Republican-controlled General Assembly, but will nevertheless factor in to what could be a high-profile debate in the 2017 legislative session. Similar proposals have died in previous sessions, but the amendment comes amid unprecedented attention on Virginia's felon voting policies and statements from leading Republicans supporting changes to those policies.
During his attempts to restore voting rights for hundreds of thousands of felons, Gov. Terry McAuliffe has called the state's felon voting ban unusually restrictive, saying Virginia is one of just four states that take away felons' political rights for life unless a rights restoration request is made to the governor.
Without any accompanying legislation, Simon's proposed amendment, co-patroned by six other Democrats, would put Virginia at the opposite end of the spectrum, joining only Maine and Vermont among states that have no restrictions on felon voting.
"What else do Maine and Vermont have in common? According to census data, they have the smallest non-white populations, ranked 49th and 50th. So they never needed to get creative about denying people of color the right to vote. There simply weren't enough of them to matter," Simon said.
Republicans, who are still fighting McAuliffe's attempts to use his executive authority to restore rights to more than 200,000 felons, have pushed back against the suggestion of racial motivations. They've pointed out that the felon voting ban originated in a Virginia constitution adopted in 1830, before African-Americans had the rights to vote, and was retained in a 1971 rewrite that did away with other discriminatory voting policies such as literacy tests and poll taxes.
Earlier this month, Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr., R-James City, introduced a constitutional amendment to automatically restore voting rights to nonviolent felons who have finished their sentences and paid all fines, court costs and restitution. Norment's amendment would also strip the governor of the power to restore rights, which means violent felons would no longer have a path to regaining rights.
Norment and House Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford, successfully sued the governor this summer, arguing his action to restore rights for 206,000 felons in one executive order effectively thwarted the constitution. McAuliffe has since begun restoring rights to a smaller number of felons through a slower, more deliberative process.
Republicans are seeking to block McAuliffe again by asking the Supreme Court of Virginia to hold the governor in contempt over his continued efforts to restore rights individually. The McAuliffe administration has called the filing meritless, saying the executive branch fully complied with the Supreme Court's earlier ruling.