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Rally calls for automatic voting rights restoration for felons as effort faces roadblock

by Jackie DeFusco/WRIC ABC 8 News

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- Dozens of advocates and formerly incarcerated Virginians rallied behind a bill potentially allowing felons to have their voting rights restored automatically upon release.

The proposed amendment to the State Constitution passed last year but it needs to win approval in the General Assembly again in order for the issue to be on the ballot this fall.

The demonstration comes as the effort is hitting a roadblock in the Republican-controlled House of Delegates. A bill from Delegate Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria) never got a hearing in the full House Privileges and Elections Committee after a subcommittee rejected it on a 6-4 vote.

GOP leadership also deflected a procedural effort to revive the proposal on the House floor, even as one of their caucus members introduced a similar bill.

On the other side of the State Capitol, the Senate passed the measure with bipartisan support. It means the House will have another chance to act on it in the second half of the session.

Supporters of the bill marched from New Life Deliverance Tabernacle to the State Capitol on Monday.

Among those leading chants for change was New Virginia Majority Community Organizer Marvin Brown.

After spending more than four years behind bars, Brown said he was released in June 2021. He petitioned then-Governor Ralph Northam in hopes of returning to the polls as soon as possible.

“When I received my letter basically stating that I had my right to vote I cried. I also cried when I felt as though my right to vote was being threatened,” Brown said.

Brown said, by the time the process was complete, the 2021 election had come and gone.

“That was a crushing blow to me because I know what it’s like to not have the right to be heard.”

Current state law gives governors broad discretion to be as lenient or as strict as they want when it comes to rights restoration.

Northam took some steps aimed at speeding up the process during his term.

Governor Glenn Youngkin’s office didn’t respond to questions about how he plans to handle petitions or if he supports the push for automatic voting rights restoration.

Senator Ryan McDougle (R-Hanover) thinks the Senate bill goes too far.

“The process should be completed. Restitution should be paid. Probation should be completed and then the cases should be looked at individually. Some of the charges are very serious,” McDougle said.

However, some advocates believe the status quo effectively disenfranchises a largely African-American population.

“Thousands of men and women are disenfranchised due to a Jim Crow era law that still exists today, one which needs to be abolished. Why must people come home only to not be fully free,” said Roger Hunt, a community organizer with New Virginia Majority. 

Asked to respond, Senator Bill DeSteph (R-Virginia Beach) said, “The process doesn’t look at the color of a person’s skin. I think the process looks at whether you were in jail or not and what your crime was.”

With the future of the bill in question, Christopher Rashad Green, an activist with the Legal Aid Justice Center, said lawmakers should let Virginia voters decide in a ballot referendum.

“I think it will be very successful if we let the people decide, rather than elected officials,” Green said.

House Privileges and Elections Committee Chair Delegate Margaret Ransone (R-Westmoreland) didn’t respond to an interview on her opposition to the constitutional amendment and whether it will get a hearing.

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