By Safia Abdulahi
Capital News Service
A proposed constitutional amendment making headway in the Virginia General Assembly would grant former felons the right to vote.
Senate Bill 21, introduced by Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, also removes a prohibition preventing people from voting who were declared by the court as mentally incompetent. The legislation instead prohibits people from casting ballots if they lack the capacity to understand the act of voting.
Locke also introduced SB 767, which outlines how former felons would be enabled and encouraged to vote if the proposed constitutional amendment passes. The Senate passed both measures.
To amend the Virginia constitution, lawmakers need to pass the legislation by majority vote for two consecutive years and then voters would decide in November through a referendum. Lawmakers passed the proposed constitutional amendment last year.
Virginians with past felony convictions are barred from voting in elections unless the governor or another appropriate authority restores their rights. Sheba Williams couldn’t vote for years after being convicted of a felony. She is now the founder and executive director of Nolef Turns, a Richmond-based criminal justice advocacy group.
Williams said she lost her right to vote for nine years due to a wrongful embezzlement conviction. Former Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell reinstated her voting rights in 2013.
“Our group does restoration rights and voter registration for thousands of Virginians who lose their rights and come back and have to get it reinstated by the governor’s office,” Williams said.
The advocacy group’s Right to Vote Campaign is a nearly three-year initiative to amend the Virginia Constitution and not disqualify voters over past convictions.
More than 5 million former felons – and some people with misdemeanors – who completed their sentences can’t vote, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Voter disenfranchisement is one of the issues that is broken in the criminal legal system, said Brad Haywood, executive director of advocacy group Justice Forward Virginia.
“If you see the world as we do, and you believe that the criminal justice system disenfranchisement of the institution of slavery, the disenfranchisement of people who commit certain crimes obviously fits within that paradigm,” Haywood said.
Haywood works as a public defender in Northern Virginia and has represented over 3,000 individuals with felony cases.
“We also know the message it sends to people who are caught up in the criminal justice system, and they’re basically being told that ‘you don’t matter anymore,’” Haywood said. “You’re not part of this participatory democracy we claim to have.”
Former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe restored voting rights in 2016 to about 200,000 felons through a blanket executive order. The Virginia Supreme Court eventually ruled that McAuliffe’s executive order was unconstitutional. The court found that restoring voting rights would need to be on a case-by-case basis.
There are over 250,000 Virginians barred from the ballot box due to a previous conviction, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Both measures have advanced to the House but have not been assigned a committee.
The laws would take effect on Jan.1, 2023, if voters pass the proposed referendum.