Va. House subcommittee rejects voting restoration proposal

A subcommittee in the Virginia House of Delegates Monday rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would have allowed nonviolent felons to automatically have their right to vote restored after serving their sentences. Under current state law, all requests must be approved by the governor personally.

Members of the Constitutional Amendments Subcommittee of the Privileges and Elections Committee voted six to one to indefinitely “pass by” the measure effectively stonewalling the bill from getting to the floor of the House. Five Republicans and one Democrat voted to stall the bill, and only House Speaker William Howell voted against the blocking maneuver.

In a statement, Gov. Bob McDonnell expressed disappointment in the decision and reaffirmed his commitment to place an automatic restoration of voting rights for nonviolent felons.

“A person convicted of a nonviolent offense, who has served their time, and paid all their fines and costs, should be able to then regain the right to vote and begin their life again as a fully engaged member of our democracy,” he said. “A constitutional right deserves a constitutional amendment so that all applicants are treated equally across administrations.”

Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli proposed releasing a list of nonviolent felonies for which restorations of rights would be available in the code of Virginia.

“Many lower-level offenses should not result in the permanent loss of civil rights for individuals,” Cuccinelli said. “That’s why we ought to make it easier for those who have committed certain nonviolent offenses … to regain their place in society.”

Although Cuccinelli said he is disappointed by the outcome of the vote he said he would gladly testify in front of the Senate to push the issue further. A similar bill was passed in Senate subcommitee Tuesday and will be heard in the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee.

McDonnell’s support of the amendment follows his historical support of re-enfranchising nonviolent offenders. Earlier in his term, he put in place an initiative to expedite the process of requesting a restoration of voting rights, including an unofficial 60-day deadline for processing requests.

Virginia has more than 350,000 disenfranchised felons and is among the states with the harshest laws related to regaining voting rights after being released from prison, according to a 2010 report by the Sentencing Project.

Studies show disenfranchisement affects African-Americans at a substantially higher rate than whites. Virginia is one of three states — other than Florida and Kentucky — where more than 20 percent of adult, voting-age African-Americans in the state are disenfranchised, according to a study conducted by the Sentencing Project.

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