RICHMOND — What's wrong with this picture: Democrats leaping to their feet to give Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell a standing ovation. The ACLU praising him. Tough-on-crime GOP legislators denouncing perhaps the most significant criminal justice initiative of the final year of his term.
Welcome to Virginia's version of Bizarro World — the 2013 General Assembly.
Mr. McDonnell opened the session by advocating legislation that would allow nonviolent felons to regain their civil rights, including the right to vote, once they finish their sentences. By doing so, he co-opted a perennial Democratic issue and clashed with conservative Republicans bent on preserving their law-and-order credentials in an election year.
"I don't agree with that approach," Delegate Robert B. Bell, Albemarle Republican and a candidate for the GOP nomination for attorney general, said minutes after Mr. McDonnell made his surprise announcement in his annual State of the Commonwealth speech. "The current system allows an individual review. If someone has gone straight and gotten their life in order, they can get their rights restored."
Virginia and Kentucky are the only two states that permanently strip felons of their rights to vote, serve on a jury, hold public office and serve as a notary public. In Virginia, the power to restore those rights lies solely with the governor.
Mr. McDonnell has made good on his promise to accelerate the process, setting a nonbinding 60-day deadline for administration officials to act on petitions. As a result, he has restored the rights of more than 4,400 felons — eclipsing the previous high mark set by his predecessor, Democrat Tim Kaine.
According to the Sentencing Project, a D.C.-based nonprofit group that advocates for sentencing reform and alternatives to prison, about 350,000 Virginia felons who have completed their sentences are barred from voting. That's second only to Florida's 1.3 million.
Despite the governor's efforts on this issue, Democrats were surprised by his plea that they support a proposed constitutional amendment to make restoration of rights even easier.
"I was shocked," said Delegate Charnielle L. Herring of Alexandria, the state Democratic Party chairman who was among the first to stand and cheer Mr. McDonnell's announcement Wednesday night. "I knew this was an important issue to him personally, but I did not see that coming."
But Virginia governors, who are constitutionally barred from seeking re-election, typically lose clout in the final year of their term. Combine that with the fact that all 100 House of Delegates seats are up for election in November, and the proposal's approval is far from certain.
"We think it will pass the Senate," said Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who supports the proposal and has the power to cast tie-breaking votes in the evenly divided, 40-member chamber. "The question is will we be able to get it through the House of Delegates."
Delegate Scott Lingamfelter, Prince William Republican, described his first reaction to the idea as "chilly."
"My big concern is drug crimes," he said. "People's lives are destroyed by the drug trade. There are consequences to being an offender."
Under Virginia law, crimes considered nonviolent include DUI manslaughter, extortion, child abuse, selling drugs to children and abusing the mentally ill. Mr. Bell said he has concerns about restoring rights to people convicted of those crimes without individually reviewing the cases.
Even if the General Assembly approves a change, it is just the first step. Constitutional amendments must be approved in two separate legislative sessions, with a House of Delegates election in between, so another vote would be required in 2014. Then the matter would go to the voters for approval.
By Elaine Donnelly
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