By Sam Isaacs
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – Gov. Bob McDonnell and other key Republicans, as well as Democratic legislators, said they are disappointed that a House subcommittee killed proposals to automatically restore the voting rights of nonviolent felons who have served their prison sentences.
“I am very disappointed in today’s vote against these constitutional amendments. Once individuals have served their time and paid their fines, restitution and other costs, they should have the opportunity to rejoin society as fully contributing members,” McDonnell said.
The constitutional amendments subcommittee of the House Privileges and Elections Committee considered, and folded together, nine constitutional amendments introduced by delegates to restore the civil rights of felons who have completed their prison terms.
All of the proposed constitutional amendments were folded into one – House Joint Resolution 535, sponsored by Delegate Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria).
The subcommittee, made up of five Republicans and two Democrats, then voted 6-1 to recommend that Herring’s amendment be “passed by indefinitely,” meaning those proposals probably won’t be considered again this legislative session. Only Delegate Algie T. Howell (D-Norfolk) voted against the motion.
The vote took place less than a week after McDonnell, in his State of the Commonwealth address, urged the General Assembly to support the restoration of voting rights for nonviolent felons.
“I believe strongly, as a matter of conscience, in protecting the constitutional rights of our citizens. And I believe that it is time for Virginia to join the overwhelming majority of states in eliminating our bureaucratic restoration process and creating a clear predictable constitutional and statutory process,” McDonnell said in his address last week.
Herring also expressed her frustration over the subcommittee’s decision.
“The House Republicans’ actions speak louder than words,” she said. “Instead of finding common ground on an issue like the restoration of voting rights, they are working to make it harder to vote while they think no one is watching.”
The restoration of voting rights has been on the Democrats’ agenda for years, but key Republicans now support the issue as well.
Republican Delegate Greg Habeeb of Salem sponsored one of the constitutional amendments that had been incorporated into Herring’s proposal. He still hopes that the General Assembly will approve the idea.
“I am disappointed in the outcome this morning. However, our work does not end here, and I am optimistic about the future of this legislation,” he said. “In the years ahead, I will continue to push for a more efficient and less burdensome re-entry process in the commonwealth.”
Habeeb’s proposal would have automatically restored rights to nonviolent felony offenders after the completion of their sentence, including the payment of any fines or restitution.
Although the House subcommittee voted down the proposals, the idea isn’t completely dead.
Four constitutional amendments to restore felons’ civil rights are pending in the Senate. If the Senate approves such a proposal, it will come back to the House for consideration.
Both McDonnell and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a fellow Republican, said they plan to continue pushing for voting rights restoration.
"Though I am disappointed with this morning's outcome, I will continue to keep up the fight on this important issue,” said Cuccinelli, who is running for governor this year. “I would welcome the opportunity to testify before members of the Senate in an effort to underscore the importance of the restoration of civil rights to these individuals. I encourage other members of the General Assembly to join me in this important fight.”
[Capital News Service is an entity of Virginia Commonwealth University.]