RICHMOND — A Republican state senator who sued Gov. Terry McAuliffe over the governor’s efforts to restore voting rights to felons filed legislation Thursday to automatically grant political rights to certain nonviolent criminals.
Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) filed the proposed constitutional amendment one day after he and other Republicans announced that they were taking McAuliffe (D) back to court over his latest attempt at rights restoration.
Norment’s move seemed intended to push back against McAuliffe’s claim that Republicans had racist motives for opposing his voting-rights actions. But his plan triggered a fierce backlash from McAuliffe and other Democrats, who said it would close off any avenue for violent felons to vote ever again short of a gubernatorial pardon. GOP legislative leaders have said they objected to McAuliffe’s methods, which they and the state’s Supreme Court deemed unconstitutional.
Norment’s proposal would automatically restore civil rights to a limited category of felons who Republicans say deserve a second chance: those convicted of nonviolent crimes who had completed their sentences and paid all restitution, court costs and fines.
McAuliffe wants to restore rights to all felons who have served their time or completed parole, including those convicted of violent offenses, with no requirement that they settle court-related debts before voting.
“This amendment would guarantee those who have their right to vote restored are truly deserving of that second chance,” Norment said in a written statement.
McAuliffe criticized Norment’s plan for requiring restitution payments, something the governor likened to a poll tax.
“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. “While no one condones violent felonies, enlightened societies believe that all men and women are capable of redemption. As such, we remain committed to giving them a path to full citizenship in our Commonwealth.”
U.S. Rep. Robert C. Scott (D-Va.) noted that Norment’s plan calls for completely removing the governor from the rights-restoration process. Since felons would no longer be able to individually petition the governor as they may now, those convicted of violent offenses would have no mechanism for regaining their rights, he said.
“They are permanently disenfranchised without the authority of the governor to restore their rights,” Scott said. “That’s a major step backwards.”
Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said he would oppose Norment’s plan, likening the restitution requirement to a poll tax.
“It seems to me a constitutional amendment written like that would make it even more onerous than it is today,” Saslaw said. “What they want to do is make it constitutionally impossible for these people to ever vote.”
Amending the state constitution is a complicated, multiyear process. The proposal must be passed by the General Assembly in two separate sessions with an intervening election and then be approved by voters in a general election. The earliest the question could appear on the Virginia ballot is November 2018 — long after the current presidential contest that Republican critics say McAuliffe was trying to affect with his original rights-restoration order.
House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), who has fought McAuliffe alongside Norment, said he agreed that “the time has come for Virginia’s policy on restoration of rights to change.”
Virginia is one of only four states — the others are Iowa, Kentucky and Florida — that ban ex-felons from voting. McAuliffe has called the 1902 law, which disenfranchises 1 in 5 African Americans in Virginia, a vestige of Jim Crow-era segregation.
But Howell did not commit to supporting Norment’s approach.
“The House of Delegates is ready and willing to actively discuss the merits of a constitutional amendment,” Howell said in a written statement. “Senator Norment’s proposal will certainly be part of that discussion. I am also asking several members of the House to begin developing proposals that can be discussed when the General Assembly convenes in January. We very much hope the governor is willing to work with the General Assembly in a productive way.”
In April, McAuliffe issued an executive order that restored voting rights to more than 200,000 felons who had completed their sentences.
Republicans said the move was really a bid to add Democratic voters to the rolls ahead of November’s presidential election, when the governor’s close friend and political ally Hillary Clinton will be on the ballot. They also contended that the governor had overstepped his authority by restoring rights en masse rather than individually, as every previous governor had done.
GOP legislative leaders sued, and in July, the Supreme Court agreed that McAuliffe had exceeded the authority. Because 13,000 of the 200,000 felons already had registered to vote, the court ordered the state to again put their names on its list of banned voters.
Last week, McAuliffe announced that he had restored voting rights to the 13,000 felons individually and said he would do the same for the remainder of the 200,000, though he offered no timetable.
The difference between McAuliffe’s original action and his current approach is largely procedural. Instead of simply announcing that any felon whose sentence is complete is eligible to vote, the administration is mailing each person a notice to that effect.
McAuliffe’s Republican predecessor, Robert F. McDonnell, had instituted a similar approach, automatically sending a letter to felons who met his criteria. But McDonnell did so only for nonviolent felons and required that they pay any fines or restitution.
On Wednesday, Norment and Howell announced that they had filed a contempt-of-court motion against McAuliffe, contending that his workaround is as unconstitutional as his original, sweeping clemency order.