Friday, 02 September 2016 00:00

Norment proposes path to voting rights for nonviolent felons; McAuliffe calls it 'step backward'

Written by Graham Moomaw | The Richmond Times Dispatch

Virginia Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. announced Thursday that he’ll introduce a constitutional amendment to automatically restore voting rights for some nonviolent felons, create new barriers for others, and strip future governors of the power to restore political rights.

The amendment — the first major proposal from Republicans who have fought to block Gov. Terry McAuliffe from restoring voting rights to more than 200,000 felons regardless of their crimes — would permanently bar violent felons from voting. Those convicted of violent crimes have long been able to apply to regain their rights after a waiting period, but Norment’s proposal would eliminate that process entirely.

Though Norment, R-James City, and House Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford, are still waging a legal battle to throw out thousands of felons’ voter registrations ahead of the presidential election, they have largely avoided offering their own suggestions for a long-term fix.

The plan announced Thursday didn’t appear to move the two sides toward a compromise. McAuliffe and other Democrats rejected Norment’s proposal in strong terms, arguing that it would create an even stricter process.

Norment’s amendment is the first detailed proposal to be introduced for the 2017 legislative session, but the time-consuming process of changing the state constitution means that the earliest the amendment could be put to Virginians for a vote would be November 2018. For that to happen, the General Assembly would have to pass the amendment in two consecutive sessions.

In a news release, Norment said the automatic restorations would apply only to felons who have finished their sentences — including probation, parole and suspended sentence — and fully paid their fines, court costs and restitution.

Norment said he believes nonviolent felons “deserve a second chance.” And in an apparent jab at McAuliffe, whose efforts have suffered legal and logistical snags, Norment said, “There is only one right way to do it.”

“That right way requires an amendment to the Constitution of Virginia, approved by the General Assembly and the people of Virginia,” Norment said. Norment said he will seek to remove the executive branch from the process to ensure there will be no repeat of the “unnecessary drama” that has followed McAuliffe’s sweeping executive order on April 22.

McAuliffe, who has said he sees no reason to treat violent and nonviolent felons differently if they’ve done their time, rejected Norment’s proposal in strong terms.

In a written statement, the governor called the amendment a “step backward” because it would reinstate the requirement that felons pay fees and restitution before being eligible to vote. The governor eliminated that requirement in 2015. On Thursday, McAuliffe called it a “modern-day 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. “While no one condones violent felonies, enlightened societies believe that all men and women are capable of redemption.”

McAuliffe has called for a constitutional amendment to “repeal” the lifetime disenfranchisement policy that he says puts Virginia at odds with most other states.

Howell signaled Friday that he supports changing the existing process, but said Norment’s proposal will be “part of that discussion” along with proposals from the House.

“Senator Norment is right: The time has come for Virginia’s policy on restoration of rights to change, and that can only happen with a constitutional amendment approved by the elected members of the General Assembly and Virginia voters,” Howell said in a written statement. “The House of Delegates is ready and willing to actively discuss the merits of a constitutional amendment.”

Norment’s proposal comes one day after he and Howell announced the filing of a contempt-of-court motion that asks the Supreme Court of Virginia to consider blocking McAuliffe’s second attempt at a large-scale rights restoration after the court struck down his original order last month.

McAuliffe has blasted Republicans for going to great lengths to prevent people from voting, though Howell and Norment contend they’re trying to preserve the rule of law and fight executive overreach.

After the court ruled his action unconstitutional, McAuliffe individually restored rights for roughly 13,000 ex-offenders who had registered to vote but were removed from the voter rolls to comply with the court’s order. The governor has said he intends to individually restore rights for the entire group of roughly 206,000 felons.

More than 79 percent of the felons covered under McAuliffe’s order were convicted of nonviolent crimes, according to a partial demographic analysis released by the administration. In 2014, McAuliffe reclassified drug distribution crimes as nonviolent for the purposes of rights restoration. Norment’s proposed amendment would allow the General Assembly to define violent versus nonviolent crimes.

Link to original article from The Richmond Times Dispatch

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