IN ABOUT 40 states, people convicted of serious crimes regain their voting rights upon discharge from prison or completion of parole. In a handful of others, convicts either are never disenfranchised or automatically regain their rights after a waiting period. These rules amount to an American consensus on what constitutes a reasonable and humane approach to redemption in a modern democracy.
In just four states are felons permanently barred from voting absent action by the governor. And in one of them, Virginia, lawmakers are considering an even more restrictive regime that would forever foreclose the possibility of redemption for tens of thousands of citizens.
For this essentially racist project, Virginians can credit the ethically challenged majority leader of Virginia’s state Senate, Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City). He filed legislation last week that would bar people convicted of violent felonies, in Virginia disproportionately African Americans, from ever having their voting rights restored.
It’s impossible to say precisely which offenses would trigger permanent disenfranchisement under Mr. Norment’s proposed constitutional amendment, which would leave it to the GOP-dominated legislature to define violent felonies. However, they might easily include categories of assault or drug crimes that might earn a young convict a few years in prison, followed by a lifetime banned from the voting booth.
Mr. Norment’s amendment would leave Virginia as an extreme outlier in terms of restoration of rights. It would strip the governor of any role in the process by automatically restoring voting rights for nonviolent felons — a category that would also be defined by lawmakers — after they had completed their sentences and paid court costs and restitution, which often amount to thousands of dollars.
For Mr. Norment, the bill is retribution against Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), who has infuriated Republicans by attempting to restore voting rights to some 200,000 ex-convicts, nearly half of them African Americans and many of them disenfranchised decades after the completion of their sentences. While Mr. Norment’s constitutional amendment could not take effect for several years — it would require legislative enactment and approval at referendum by voters — it would strip future governors of any role in restoring voting rights, a power enshrined in Virginia’s constitution for more than a century.
Before Virginia tightened its laws in response to a scandal involving former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R), Mr. Norment was notorious as the recipient of lavish hunting trips paid for by corporate bigwigs seeking favorable legislative treatment. Last year, it was reported that he was interviewed by the FBI for conduct arising from his personal relationship with a female lobbyist whose firm regularly pushed for legislation that he voted for and, in two cases, personally sponsored; he neither recused himself nor disclosed the relationship in a timely way.
Mr. Norment, who was charged with no crime, admitted to “exceedingly poor judgment” in the affair. Maybe his voting rights should be rescinded.