RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A proposal to have Virginia voters decide whether people convicted of felonies should have their voting rights automatically restored once they are free was rejected by a Republican-controlled House of Delegates subcommittee.
The Virginia General Assembly approved the proposed constitutional amendment last year, but a second vote was needed to put a referendum on the ballot in November. The effort is still alive in the Virginia Senate, where Democrats have a slim 21-19 majority, but the House would have to approve the bill.
“I ask that we pass this and least give it to the voters to decide whether to amend our constitution,” Del. Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria) said Tuesday when presenting her bill to the House’s Privileges and Elections subcommittee.
The push for a ballot referendum on felon voting rights has received bipartisan support in Virginia, with one House Republican sponsoring his version of the proposal. That bill has not been heard in subcommittee.
More than a dozen speakers addressed the subcommittee in support of the effort on Tuesday, including some on behalf of conservative groups, advocacy groups and even people who have had their voting rights restored.
“This is something we can get behind because it gives rights back to voters after they return back to society,” said Kaitlin Owens, deputy director of advocacy for the American Conservative Union Foundation’s Nolan Center for Justice. “We want to reintegrate people that have served their time that may have kids in school, may be protective members of society, but can’t have a voice.”
In Virginia, those who are convicted of a felony automatically lose their right to vote. When the measure was first introduced last year, it called for restoring incarcerated people’s right to vote before their sentences were complete.
Teresa Hepler, an attorney at the Legal Aid Justice Center and community advocate, said the consequences of the criminal justice system, and as a result the loss of voting rights, fall disproportionally on marginalized communities.
“Through my work in marginalized communities, I have seen people genuinely rejoice over having their voting rights restored,” Hepler told the subcommittee.
Speakers on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Virginia, the Virginia Catholic Conference, the Virginia NAACP, the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, the ACLU of Virginia and Americans for Prosperity Virginia also spoke in support of the proposal on Tuesday.
There was no one who spoke in opposition to the effort on Tuesday and only Del. Chris Head (R-Botetourt) the subcommittee’s chairman, asked a question about the pending amendment.
Del. Head asked Del. Herring whether people convicted of felonies would have to pay fees or restitution before they can have their voting rights restored. Herring told him, “no, it’s not included.”
The proposal was killed on a 5-4 vote, with all of the Republicans on the subcommittee voting against and all of the Democrats supporting the effort. Unless the Senate proposal gets through the House and the legislature, Gov. Glenn Youngkin would be the only way ex-offenders could regain their voting rights.
Del. Herring criticized the party-line vote on the House floor later in the day, saying the restoration of voting rights shouldn’t be left to the governor. “We’ll be back next year and get this done,” she said Tuesday.