House panel kills felon voting bills

January 14, 2013

A House panel Monday rejected nine bills to automatically restore voting rights to nonviolent felons, despite the wishes of Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and an in-person appeal by Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.

The GOP-controlled subcommittee of the House Privileges and Elections Committee voted against all of the voting-rights restoration bills submitted in the House. But the issue — one that McDonnell (R) got behind very publicly last week — remains alive because similar measures are pending in the Senate.

Felons, violent and nonviolent alike, can get their voting rights restored in Virginia under current law, but they must appeal to the governor to do so. McDonnell (R) has streamlined that process and restored more voting rights than any of his predecessors.

In a surprise announcement in his State of the Commonwealth speech last week, McDonnell went a step further, urging the General Assembly to automatically restore voting rights to nonviolent felons who had paid their debt to society. Democrats have been pushing for that for many years.

Cuccinelli (R) made a personal appearance before the committee’s Constitutional Amendments Subcommittee on Monday morning in support of automatic restoration in the case of most nonviolent crimes. He said he would not support it for those who had committed voter fraud. Over the years, Cuccinelli said, penalties on many crimes have gone up, a phenomenon that he referred to as “felony creep.”

Del. Jackson Miller (R-Manassas), chairman of the subcommittee, was among those who were opposed. Miller said he applauded the efforts McDonnell had made over the years to streamline the process for restoration of rights. But Miller said restoring those rights automatically for nonviolent offenders could lead to some inequities.

Miller noted that violent offenders actually have a lower recidivism rate than nonviolent offenders. Under the change proposed by the governor, he said, a lifelong scam artist who’d preyed on seniors could get his vote back automatically, while a teenager who’d broken into a neighbor’s garage to steal a six-pack of beer would not, since burglary can be classified as a violent crime.

Restoration of rights is one of many issues related to voting before the General Assembly this session, one year after legislators fought bitterly over voter ID laws.

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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