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Felon Voting Rights Still a Work In Progress

Many federal lawmakers are echoing Attorney General Eric Holder’s call to restore voting rights to felons in Virginia. 

In a couple states felons can vote while in prison. In many right after they leave the gates their voting rights are restored. Not in Virginia.

The commonwealth is one of just a handful of states that doesn’t restore voting rights upon being released from prison or completing probation or parole, which Attorney General Holder says is unjust.

 “I call upon state leaders and other elected officials across this country to pass clear and consistent reforms to restore the voting rights of all who have served their terms in prison or jail, completed their parole or probation and paid their fines.”

Virginia Democratic Senator Tim Kaine remembers fighting to change Virginia’s law while in Richmond. 

 “As governor, I, Mark Warner first and then me and then Bob McDonnell, we really tried to dramatically escalate the re-enfranchisement of folks, because I think we’ve all come to the realization that the sort of automatic disenfranchisement for a felony…is a bad rule.”

There’s only so much a governor can do though, because Virginia’s Constitution prohibits felons from getting back into voting booths, though a new policy allows non-violent offenders to vote upon being released from prison. Virginia Democratic Congressman Bobby Scott is on the Judiciary Committee.

 “There are hundreds of thousands of African Americans, particularly African American men, who get in trouble early on and people in their 40's and 50's that had a problem 20 and 30 years still can’t vote unless the governor individually restores the right to vote.”

Scott argues the restriction increases crime in communities across the commonwealth.

“It’s been shown when you allow people to reintegrate into the society, including the right to vote, they’re much less likely to commit a subsequent crime. It has some crime reduction benefit to it.”

Virginia Republican Bob Goodlatte, the head of the House Judiciary Committee, refused to comment for this story. But the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, says the Obama administration shouldn’t be meddling in local issues.

 “I think it’d be better if he’d leave that up to each state. We can’t have a national policy on criminal law. We never have and we never should.”

The issue is also already being inserted into presidential politics. Two likely G-O-P presidential primary candidates are weighing in on the issue. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul was with Attorney General Holder when he called out states like Virginia for having such restrictive policies. But Florida Senator Marco Rubio doesn’t like the idea.

“I think there are certain categories of felonies that should permanently disqualify you from voting rights.”

Proponents say getting a Constitutional amendment through both chambers in Richmond and then approved directly by voters is a lengthy, difficult process. But Senator Kaine is holding out hope. 

 “So there is resistance in Richmond but I see the resistance to this softening in Virginia and elsewhere.”

So for now, Virginia’s tens of thousands of felons are hoping their paperwork can get to Governor Terry McAulliffe’s desk in time for the next election. But even with the streamlined process in place only thousands are expected to get approval in time.