By Hope R. Amezquita, Staff Attorney & Legislative Counsel
On September 26, 2013 the ACLU of Virginia and a coalition of civil rights organizations submitted letters to the candidates for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General of Virginia asking that they commit to ending the Jim Crow era disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of people in Virginia. Though Governor McDonnell has made notable progress in restoring the voting rights of Virginians over the last four years, over 350,000 Virginians will continue to be unable to exercise their fundamental right to vote on November 5th because of felon disenfranchisement.
We are disappointed that Robert Sarvis, the Libertarian Party’s gubernatorial candidate, was the only candidate to acknowledge or respond to our letter in any way. We are disheartened that Attorney General Cuccinelli, Mr. McAuliffe, Mr. Jackson, Senator Northam, Senator Herring, and Senator Obenshain apparently saw no reason to respond to a thoughtful request from organizations that represent thousands of Virginians concerning a fundamental right – the right to vote. We are dismayed that none of the candidates chose to provide us and the public with a detailed plan for ending felon disenfranchisement in Virginia.
The letters sent on behalf of the coalition asked the gubernatorial candidates to make three specific commitments. First, actively propose and support an amendment to the Virginia constitution that would repeal the current lifetime ban on voting for all felons. Second, agree to sign an executive order immediately upon taking office that restores the right to vote. Third, improve the existing restoration of rights process. We also asked the gubernatorial candidates to provide the public with a detailed plan on how they intend to end disenfranchisement in Virginia.
In addition, we asked the Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General candidates to make these specific commitments. First, support an amendment to the Virginia constitution that would repeal the current lifetime ban on voting for all felons. Second, ask the Governor to sign an executive order immediately upon taking office that restores the right to vote. Third, ask the Governor to improve the existing restoration of rights process. We also asked the Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General candidates to provide the public with a detailed plan on how they plan to end disenfranchisement in Virginia.
Robert Sarvis sent an email including the following limited response to our requests:
“I support a constitutional amendment repealing the lifetime ban on voting by felons.
I support legalizing marijuana, so people are no longer disenfranchised for marijuana-related activity.
I support revising felony thresholds for larceny to reflect changes in dollar values due to inflation, thus leading to disenfranchisement of fewer people.
I support improving the process by which felons regain the right to vote, especially automatic restoration for nonviolent/drug felons.”
Mr. Sarvis’ response indicates his support for a constitutional amendment and for improving the restorations process. Mr. Sarvis’ response, however, did not include a plan to end the disenfranchisement, and did not include any mention of our request that he agree to sign an executive order immediately upon taking office that restores the right to vote. But, Mr. Sarvis did indicate his support for two additional steps to reduce the number of individuals convicted of felonies, thus reducing the number of people impacted by felon disenfranchisement in Virginia.
Whoever prevails in Virginia’s gubernatorial race will have the authority to issue an executive order automatically restoring the rights of all persons convicted of a felony once they have been released from probation or parole and without being conditioned on payment of fines, fees, and restitution. In addition, all of our new statewide leaders will have considerable influence over efforts to end felon disenfranchisement. It is a shame that none of them appear to believe that the disenfranchisement of more than 350,000 Virginians is a serious enough issue to merit a thorough and thoughtful response to the questions we posed.