Why a Year of Legal Battles Might Mean Permanent Change for Virginia's Felons

Dec 28, 2016


Anthony Crawford, a resident of Richmond's Gilpin Court, was able to register to vote for the first time this year.
Credit Mallory Noe-Payne / WVTF

Restoration of voting rights for felons became a hot-button issue this year -- as a legal battle played out between Virginia’s Democratic Governor, who attempted to restore rights en-masse, and Republican lawmakers who claimed he didn’t have that power. 

Now, as the legislative session approaches, Republicans are eyeing more permanent changes to avoid future issues. 

It’s written into Virginia’s Constitution: felons in the state permanently lose their civil rights, unless restored by the Governor. 

For the past five years, Delegate Greg Habeeb, a Republican from Salem,  has unsuccessfully tried to change that. But in this presidential election year, the issue has made a lot of headlines. 

“There is certainly more awareness of the need to reform our system," Habeeb says. "The question is can we come to a consensus on what’s the right approach or not.”

Learn More: What Happened This Year with Rights Restoration in Virginia? 

Republicans say the root of their opposition to Governor McAuliffe's massive restoration of rights back in April was that McAuliffe overstepped his executive authority. Virginia's Supreme Court eventually agreed with that assessment.

Habeeb endorses the idea of restoring felon's rights  --  by changing the state's constitution.   

Delegate Greg Habeeb, Republican of Salem.
Credit Steve Helber / AP

"Finding the right and best way to bring people wholly back into society is important both for the individual and it's important for us in a broader sense," Habeeb says. "When we withhold full citizenship from people once they've made good to society I think we can create generational harm in families.

To prevent that, Habeeb proposes allowing a felon convicted of a nonviolent crime to get their rights back automatically -- after serving their time and paying any fines. A violent felon could still apply for restoration from the Governor.

Other Republicans have proposed something similar, but suggest removing the Governor from the process altogether, eliminating any chance for a violent felon to have their rights restored. 

Habeeb has also submitted legislation that would, if his other bills pass, restore a non-violent felon’s rights to own a gun. 

Changing the state constitution is a multi-year process. If an amendment is passed this year, it must also pass during the 2018 General Assembly and then go to voters for a statewide referendum.