Virginia’s Democrat governor, Terry McAuliffe, and the Republican-controlled legislature are clashing again over the voting rights of felons.
Last week, Virginia state Senate majority leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. proposed an amendment to the state constitution that would prohibit felons convicted of violent crimes from ever being able to vote again.
The proposal comes just weeks after McAuliffe announced his plan to restore voting rights to 13,000 felons on a case-by-case basis.
McAuliffe has been unequivocal in his opposition to the proposed amendment.
“This cynical proposal unmasks Republican leaders’ true motive, which is to permanently disenfranchise men and women and condemn them to a lifetime as outcasts from our Commonwealth,” McAuliffe said in a written statement.
McAuliffe also condemned the stipulation in Norment’s amendment requiring that ex-convicts pay all court costs and other fees before having their rights restored, calling it an “unfair demand” and likening it to a “modern-day poll tax."
Norment’s proposal was harshly criticized by Democrats in the state, including Senate minority leader Richard L. Saslaw and U.S. representative Robert C. Scott (D-VA), who said the amendment would be "a major step backwards.”
In Virginia, a disproportionate number of felons convicted of violent crimes are African-American, according to an analysis released by Governor McAuliffe’s office, and many of them are still currently unable to vote decades after serving their time.
Virginia is currently one of four states —Iowa, Kentucky and Florida are the others — in the US that bans felons from voting. Currently, violent felons and those convicted of crimes against minors and electoral offenses face a three-year waiting period, after which they can apply to have the governor restore their voting rights. Non-violent felons currently have their rights restored after release, provided they fill out an online form.
Norment’s proposed amendment would prohibit bar violent felons from ever voting again, while granting voting rights back to certain nonviolent felons upon completion of their sentence and the payment of all court costs and other fees.
The definition of what constitutes a violent or nonviolent offense would be defined by the General Assembly, a move that some worry could lead to wider definition on what constitutes violent offenses.
The battle over felon voting rights in Virginia has been ongoing for most of this year.
McAuliffe is spearheading an effort to restore voting rights to felons in the state who have served their time, regardless of whether they were convicted of violent crimes or if they had finished paying their fees.
In April, McAuliffe signed an executive order to restore voting rights to felons that have completed their sentences and been released from probation or parole.
The move was immediately criticized by state Republicans as ploy to add Democratic voters ahead of November’s election and said that his order was unconstitutional.
GOP leaders sued and, in July, the state’s Supreme Court ruled that the governor’s executive orders were unconstitutional.
As a result, felons who had their voting rights restored between McAuliffe’s April announcement and July’s court ruling had their rights revoked. McAuliffe has said that he will continue to restore voting rights on a case-by-case basis.