Virginia Senate proposal lets inmates vote while incarcerated, House version restores rights upon release

Virginia

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – A proposed amendment to the Virginia Constitution would allow inmates to vote behind bars.

The bill from Sen. Mamie Locke (D-Hampton) completely removes voting restrictions for those who have been convicted of a felony or deemed “mentally incompetent” by a court.

The change would make Virginia the third state to let felons cast their ballots while incarcerated, joining Vermont and Maine. More than 30 other states already have an automatic process in place for rights restoration.

To become a law, a constitutional amendment needs to win a majority in two separate legislative sessions with an intervening election. It also needs to gain the approval of voters in a statewide referendum, which could happen as early as November 2022 in this case.

Locke’s bill is being backed by groups like the ACLU, who argue bold action is necessary to right long-standing wrongs.

Some House Democrats fear the Senate bill goes to far to gain sufficient public support.

“Personally, I would prefer never taking away someone’s right to vote but my practical view is…I’m not at all convinced that it would win,” said Del. Mark Levine (D-Alexandria) in a phone interview on Tuesday. “I would rather take a giant step forward, even if it doesn’t take us all the way there.”

This sentiment was shared by a number of lawmakers before a House sub-committee advanced a more limited approach on Monday.

The bill from House Majority Leader Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria) would automatically restore an inmate’s voting rights upon release.

Originally, it also would’ve required felons to finish probation before they could cast a ballot. The requirement was eliminated after some raised concerns that this could lead to years, or even a lifetime, of disenfranchisement.

The amended bill ultimately advanced by a vote of 4-2. The change was a deal breaker for Republican Del. Chris Head (R-Roanoke).

“I’m prepared to support it as filed but without this I won’t be able to,” Head said. “I think that you would have honestly a much better shot of getting this across the finish line with the public once it goes onto the ballot by leaving it.”

The original bill was crafted by Gov. Ralph Northam’s Administration. Northam elevated voting rights restoration as a priority in his State of the Commonwealth address last month.

Northam and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe are continuing to support the House proposal as amended.

“It’s going to happen. Virginia is going to move into the 21st century and finally stop treating people like second-class citizens,” said McAuliffe. “This is a Jim Crow law to disenfranchise black and brown communities.”

Under current law, a sitting governor in Virginia can decide to restore an inmate’s voting rights but there are limits to that authority. While presenting to the sub-committee, Herring said her bill would make restoration consistent, regardless of which party is in power.

McAuliffe caused controversy during his Administration when he attempted to unilaterally restore rights for more than 200,000 people. Republicans pushed back at the time, arguing that individual crimes should be considered and court fees should be paid before the privilege is granted.

After a battle in the courts, McAuliffe ultimately succeeded in restoring rights for about 173,000 people.

Christopher Rashad Green was among them.

“For me personally it was just empowering,” Green said. “Voting for the first time in over 30 years…it really opened up doors and I embraced the whole electoral process.”

Now a lead organizer for the New Virginia Majority, Green dedicates his life to engaging others in democracy.

“In that moment, I knew this was my calling,” he said. “I found my purpose.”

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