Virginia legislators propose amendment allowing incarcerated felons and persons judged mentally incompetent to vote

Virginia Sen. Mamie Locke (D) and Del. Kaye Kory (D) are patrons of a bill to amend Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution of Virginia to remove the following text: “No person who has been convicted of a felony shall be qualified to vote unless his civil rights have been restored by the Governor or other appropriate authority. As prescribed by law, no person adjudicated to be mentally incompetent shall be qualified to vote until his competency has been reestablished.” The amendment also adds text to specify that the only qualifications for voting are citizenship, age, residency, and voter registration, stating that “[e]very person who meets these qualifications shall have the fundamental right to vote in the Commonwealth, and such right shall not be abridged by law.” The bill, Senate Joint Resolution No. 8, was prefiled on December 3.

In Virginia, constitutional changes can be proposed through legislatively referred constitutional amendments, which can be proposed in either house of the Virginia General Assembly. If a proposed amendment is approved by a simple majority vote in one session of the state legislature, it is automatically referred to the next session of the state legislature that occurs after the next general election of members of the Virginia House of Delegates. If, in that second session, the proposed amendment is approved by a majority in each house, it is then placed before the state’s voters on a special or general election ballot. If approved by a simple majority vote, it becomes part of the state’s constitution.

By winning both chambers of the legislature in the November 2019 elections, Democrats gained a state government trifecta. Virginia legislators assume office the second Wednesday in January after an election.

Voting rights for convicted felons vary substantially from state to state. Two states, Maine and Vermont, allow felons to vote while incarcerated, and one state, Iowa, permanently disenfranchises felons. In the other 47 states, felons cannot vote while incarcerated but can regain the right to vote at some point after their release, although eight of those states permanently disenfranchise felons who commit certain categories of crimes. Seventeen states automatically restore voting rights after release from incarceration, and the rest restore voting rights at a different point, such as completion of probation or parole.

It should be noted that governors across the United States may exercise their executive authority to restore voting rights on an individual basis. The policies described above deal with automatic or wide-ranging restoration of voting rights for convicted felons. Although, as noted above, Iowa state policy does not provide for automatic or wide-ranging restoration of voting rights for convicted felons, Iowa’s governor may, on an individual basis, restore voting rights to specific felons.

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Additional reading:
Virginia State Senate
Virginia House of Delegates
Amending state constitutions