Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Morgan Griffith on Restoring Voting Rights to Convicts

From U.S. Representative Morgan Griffith (R-VA-9):

Redemption or Politics?

As you may know, Governor Terry McAuliffe (D-VA) signed an executive order on April 22 that restores “…the rights of every Virginia felon who completed his or her sentence and all other requirements as of April 22nd, 2016. The total number of Virginians impacted by the Governor’s order today is 206,000.”

According to a piece in the National Journal, this order includes “…those convicted of murder, armed robbery, rape, sexual assault, and other violent crimes. The order also restores their right to sit on a jury, become a notary, and even serve in elected office.”

In an attempt to defend his actions, Governor McAuliffe equated taking away felons’ voting rights to literacy tests and the poll tax. But unlike the voting rights provisions, the shameful literacy test and poll taxes were established by Virginia Democrats at the dawn of the 20th Century.

Governor McAuliffe’s argument that taking away voting rights of felons was an attempt to reduce the African American vote is simply silly, wishful thinking, or an intentional manipulation of the facts. Losing your voting rights after having been convicted of a felony first appears in the Virginia Constitution in 1830. It has been in the Constitution ever since.

Unless he thinks the political leaders in 1830 somehow had a crystal ball at the time the policy was incorporated into Virginia’s Constitution, it would have been impossible for African American votes to have been an issue, given that only white men were then allowed to vote. Taking away the vote of convicted felons would only have impacted white men.

If political leaders in 1830 had that crystal ball, they could have seen that in 1870, African American men would finally get the right to vote. But surely in that crystal ball they also would have seen the War Between the States where a significant percentage of Virginia’s white male population was killed or handicapped. And if they had in fact had that crystal ball, they would have used it to avoid that horrid war, end slavery peacefully, and save their children’s lives instead of worrying about who could vote in 1870, 1902, or 2016.

The writers of this National Journal piece agree, stating: “This is a bogus and demagogic claim about a policy that applies equally to all felons regardless of race and that was established when black Virginians couldn’t even vote.”

Also, despite precedent, McAuliffe is attempting to restore a felon’s right to vote automatically, rather than by on a case-by-case basis. As the National Journal notes:
“…on January 15, 2010, Mark Rubin, the counselor for former Virginia governor Tim Kaine (D., now a U.S. senator), sent a letter on the governor’s behalf to the ACLU, saying that Kaine did not have the executive power ‘to grant a blanket restoration of voting rights,’ which the ACLU had requested. Kaine supported restoration of voting rights but refused to act because his counsel’s view was that the ‘better argument’ was that the powers in the Virginia constitutional provision on clemency (Article 5, Section 12) ‘are meant to apply in particular cases to named individuals.’ In fact, ‘a blanket order restoring the voting rights of everyone would be a rewrite of the law. . . . The notion that the Constitution of the Commonwealth could be rewritten via executive order is troubling.’”
Mark Rubin is a top-shelf lawyer whose legal opinion I respect. Mind you, we don’t always agree. But he has long been recognized as one of the best legal minds in Virginia.

Further, the Governor’s office released an analysis on his executive order which indicates that more than 20 percent of felons who got their voting rights restored were convicted of violent crimes. That is more than 40,000 violent offenders.

Governor McAuliffe has said the day he signed this executive order “was my greatest day as Governor.”

I believe in redemption for all, but I also agree with the Virginia Constitution. The facts and circumstances of each individual must be reviewed by the Governor’s office. The ex-felon must show they have turned over a new leaf. Giving a blanket restoration of rights to 206,000 felons – more than 40,000 of whom McAuliffe recognizes as being violent criminals – is not only unconstitutional, but without knowing exactly who they are, what they’ve done, or whether they’ve reformed themselves, is just plain wrong.

Maybe it is politics.

If you have questions, concerns, or comments, feel free to contact my office. You can call my Abingdon office at 276-525-1405 or my Christiansburg office at 540-381-5671. To reach my office via email, please visit my website at www.morgangriffith.house.gov. Also on my website is the latest material from my office, including information on votes recently taken on the floor of the House of Representatives.