When I was running for the school board, there was a local man who put a lot of time and effort into my campaign.
He was wonderful and successful in his business, pouring specialty foundations for new homes. He was well-read, active in his community and a veteran. A model citizen. However, I learned a little more about him on election day when I said, “Hey, we need to drop by your precinct and vote. I need all the votes I can get.”
That was the point of revelation. He admitted that he couldn’t vote because when was 18 he and some buddies stole a car. It was a classic joyride, but nonetheless a serious crime. They were arrested and convicted. He avoided a jail term by taking the option offered by the judge, joining the Army and eventually serving in the Korean War.
However, in Virginia, he was a felon, a once and forever designation that brings with it the loss of the right to vote, be a juror, run for office, and even, yes, be a notary public.
I asked him why, after all these years, he hadn’t applied to have his rights restored. He simply said, “That would be too embarrassing.” My only thought was that this all seemed rather sad and something of a travesty of justice. How long should someone have to pay for their crime?
Crimes and felonies come in a lot of stripes, but one underlying principle in our judicial system is that once you’ve done your time, once you have paid your debt to society, you should be ready for a new start. Not so in Virginia.
Eighteen states allow criminals who have served their sentence to have their civil rights automatically restored upon completion of sentence. Another 19 never take them away, and a few others have a waiting period before these rights are restored.
But Virginia has been slow to budge. Withholding civil rights to former offenders has a long tradition in the state and not a pleasant one. When former Confederates and white supremacists reasserted power in the late 19th century, one of the first things they did was to include the removal of a felon’s voting rights.
This principle was included in the infamous segregationist 1901 Constitution and carried over to the 1971 Constitution. It lowered the pool of African-American voters, and it remains a grim reminder of an unhappy past.
As modern and progressive as Virginia has become, the legislature, at least not until this year, never got that far with efforts to change the Constitution to allow felons the rights of regular citizens.
In 2015, then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe restored felons’ rights in a wholesale fashion, giving them back to all people who had been convicted of a felony. Not surprisingly, the Republican-dominated legislature challenged the governor’s action in court. The Virginia Supreme Court ruled that restoration of a felon’s civil rights is a power the governor could exercise only on a case-by-case basis.
This year the General Assembly, mostly along party lines, approved a proposed constitutional amendment that would restore felons’ rights to vote once they have done their time. The amendment must be passed again in the 2022 General Assembly before it can be placed onto the ballot. Constitutional changes are made only when they’ve been approved by the electorate. So this is by no means a done deal.
If the GOP takes back a majority of the House of Delegates this fall or if Virginia elects a more conservative GOP governor, passing the bill twice may be difficult. However, for the moment, this archaic provision may finally be in its last days.
David Kerr is an adjunct professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University and has worked on Capitol Hill and for various federal agencies for many years.