ACLU urges lawmakers to act on felon disenfranchisement reform
The ACLU of Virginia on Thursday praised Gov. Bob McDonnell for his remarks during last night’s State of the Commonwealth address in which he showed support for legislation that would automatically restore civil rights for nonviolent offenders.
“Governor McDonnell deserves credit for the efforts that he has already made to increase the number of felons who have had their rights restored and praise for becoming an advocate for reform of Virginia’s antiquated law denying for life felons’ civil rights,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Claire G. Gastañaga said today. “For too long, Virginia has been out of step with the rest of the country by continuing to disenfranchise all felons for life. McDonnell is right; it’s time for Virginia to shed this vestige of the Jim Crow era and provide offenders the opportunity to participate again in our democracy.”
According to the Sentencing Project, over 450,000 individuals – about 7.3% of the population – are barred from exercising their right to vote in Virginia due to a felony conviction. The vast majority of disenfranchised persons in Virginia and the U.S. are no longer incarcerated and are tax-paying citizens with jobs and families who are involved in their communities. At least two-thirds have fully completed their sentences, including probation and parole. Moreover, as the number and kinds of offenses that are felonies in Virginia have proliferated, the link between offense and disenfranchisement as become less and less rational and more attenuated.
“With the governor’s public support, it’s now up to Virginia’s legislators to vote for these measures and move us ahead,” added Gastañaga. “There are a half dozen proposals before the General Assembly this year with varying mechanisms for change, but all are aimed at positive reform. It would still be a big step forward to amend the state constitution to allow for automatic restoration for nonviolent offenders.”
Under the Virginia Constitution, the governor, not the General Assembly, has control over the process for restoring voting rights of felons. Only the General Assembly has the power to put a Constitutional amendment to change this before the people for a vote. A constitutional amendment requires approval by two separate legislative sessions (with a House of Delegates election in between) before it can be put to a referendum by Virginia voters. If the legislature approves the change this year (2013) and in 2014, the amendment can be voted on in November 2014. If the legislature doesn’t act this year, the earliest amendment could be put to a vote would be November 2016.
The ACLU of Virginia, along with scores of ministers, faith-based groups, the NAACP and numerous other state and local organizations have pressed for reform of Virginia’s felon disenfranchisement law for years. In most states, the right to vote is automatically restored once felons, especially non-violent felons, have completed the terms of their sentences. All felons in Virginia are banned from voting (and running for office) for life unless the governor restores their rights. No state is considered worst than Virginia, and only three others – Kentucky, Iowa and Florida – have laws that are as punitive.