RICHMOND — Gov. Bob McDonnell’s fellow Republicans dealt him a quick and decisive setback on a high-profile issue Monday, rejecting his plea for legislation to make it easier for some felons to regain their voting rights.
Less than a week after Mr. McDonnell’s surprise endorsement of a proposal historically championed by Democrats, a GOP-dominated House of Delegates committee overwhelmingly voted to kill the proposed constitutional amendment. The measure would have allowed automatic restoration of nonviolent felons’ civil rights after they complete their sentences.
Mr. McDonnell said in a statement he was disappointed by the subcommittee’s action.
“I believe strongly, as a matter of conscience, in protecting the constitutional rights of our citizens,” he said. “And I believe that it is time for Virginia to join the overwhelming majority of states in eliminating our bureaucratic restoration process and creating a clear, predictable constitutional and statutory process.”
Virginia and Kentucky are the only states that permanently strip felons of those rights. In Virginia, the power to restore those rights lies solely with the governor. Several lawmakers from both parties submitted legislation calling for a constitutional amendment to automatically restore nonviolent felons’ rights to vote, hold public office and serve on a jury.
Delegate Charniele L. Herring of Alexandria, chairwoman of the state Democratic Party and one of the sponsors of the legislation, said after the subcommittee’s vote that she also was disappointed in the outcome.
“This has clearly become a nonpartisan issue with the governor’s support, and I think the majority of Virginians support it,” Ms. Herring said.
Mr. McDonnell has made good on a pledge to accelerate the process, setting a nonbinding 60-day deadline for administration officials to make recommendations on petitions. When he endorsed making the process automatic in his State of the Commonwealth speech Wednesday night, Mr. McDonnell also said his administration has restored the rights of more than 4,400 felons, beating the record set by Democrat Tim Kaine.
But according to the Sentencing Project, a D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for sentencing reform and alternatives to prison, about 350,000 Virginia felons who have completed their sentences still are barred from voting. That’s second only to Florida’s 1.3 million.
Legislators from both parties have lauded Mr. McDonnell’s efforts to expedite the procedure, but many Republicans have said they preferred to maintain the current system requiring a case-by-case review.
“Some think we should restore felons’ rights, but they should have to ask for it, which is essentially what we have now,” said Delegate Gregory D. Habeeb, Salem Republican and another sponsor of the legislation.
Legislators repeatedly have rejected automatic restoration in the past several years, and Mr. Habeeb said “institutional inertia” also played a role in Monday’s vote. He said he was not surprised by the outcome but is optimistic that the tide is turning.
“Every time we have this conversation it advances the ball a little bit,” Mr. Habeeb said.
By rejecting the measure, the subcommittee spared the full House a recorded floor vote on the issue in a year when all 100 delegate seats are up for election.
“At the very least, the House Republican leadership should have afforded a governor of their own party the courtesy of a full hearing on the House floor on this very important issue, which has implications for large numbers of Virginia residents,” House Democratic leader David J. Toscano of Charlottesville said in a statement.