Home Health Felon voting rights, same-sex marriage measures die in Virginia House panel – The Washington Post

Felon voting rights, same-sex marriage measures die in Virginia House panel – The Washington Post

11 min read

RICHMOND — Republicans in control of a state House subcommittee voted Tuesday to kill two proposed constitutional amendments, one to lift a Jim Crow-era ban on felon voting and the other to repeal Virginia’s now-defunct prohibition against same-sex marriage.
The party-line votes mark the end of the road for the measures, which had bipartisan support in both chambers of the General Assembly last year but never made it to the full House for a floor vote this time.
The six Republicans who killed the proposals made no comments ahead of the votes. One of the four Democrats on the panel, Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg (Henrico), implored the subcommittee to pass both measures. A high school civics teacher, VanValkenburg noted that Virginia first imposed its lifetime voting ban on felons in the Jim Crow era.
“In 1902, when they put these barriers to voting in the constitution with the intent of keeping people from citizenship, Virginia was the worst democracy in the country,” he said. “We made Mississippi look like a hotbed of democracy. This is one of those last pieces from that era.”
The ban on same-sex marriage was a much more recent addition to the constitution, with an amendment passed in 2006. It defined marriage as “only a union between one man and one woman.” That language remains, even after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015 and struck down state laws banning it.
To change the state constitution, a proposed amendment must win passage in General Assembly two years in a row — with an election in between — before going to a public vote in a general election. The felon voting and same-sex marriage measures passed both chambers of the Democratic-controlled legislature last year with bipartisan support, but prospects for their passage dimmed after Republicans won control of the House in November.
The governor has no role in the amendment process — except as an individual voter if one makes it to the ballot. A spokeswoman for Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R), who ran as a tough-on-crime conservative, did not respond to a request for comment. Youngkin indicated to the Associated Press in October that he personally does not support same-sex marriage but acknowledged that it was “legally acceptable” and that as governor, he would support the law.
Va. Gov. Youngkin stirred the GOP base on critical race theory — but not the General Assembly
The constitution permanently strips felons of their voting rights, although they can petition the governor for restoration. Recent governors have taken steps to make the restoration process easier, starting with Republican Robert F. McDonnell and greatly accelerating under Democrats Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam, who restored rights in record numbers.
The proposed amendment would have made restoration of felons’ rights automatic upon completion of their sentences.
“Virginians who have served their time and paid their debt to society should not have to petition to be full citizens of the Commonwealth,” McAuliffe, who in November lost a comeback bid to Youngkin, tweeted after the vote. “Today’s vote to deny a referendum on automatic restoration of rights is deeply troubling. A missed opportunity for such important progress.”
Supporters of the voting rights measure took it as a good sign this year that a Republican, Del. Mike Cherry (Colonial Heights) sponsored the House version of that measure. But the GOP-led House Privileges and Elections Subcommittee shot that down a month ago, along with the House version of the marriage amendment.
Virginia House panel strikes down effort to remove same-sex marriage ban from constitution
So there was little doubt about the outcome Tuesday, as the same subcommittee took up identical measures that had crossed over from the Senate. Sen. Mamie E. Locke (D-Hampton) made a halfhearted pitch for her voting rights legislation.
“You know what this amendment does,” she said. “That’s all I’ve got to say.”
A handful of supporters — including individual ex-felons and officials with the American Civil Liberties Union and the Virginia Catholic Conference — spoke briefly in favor.
“We think it’s an important matter of justice for those who have finished their sentences,” said Jeff Caruso, executive director of the Virginia Catholic Conference.
No one from the public or on the panel spoke against the legislation. But as the subcommittee promptly shot it down without comment, Locke muttered: “What a surprise.”
The committee next did the same to the marriage measure, brought by Sen. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria), who in 2003 became the first openly gay person elected to Virginia’s General Assembly.
“We’ve evolved since 2006, when we stained our constitution with the so-called marriage amendment,” Ebbin said. “And we give this committee a chance to evolve since you made a mistake a few weeks ago.”
Ebbin said the amendment would provide “a fundamental dignity and equality to our friends, family and neighbors — and to me.”
Narissa Rahaman, executive director of Equality Virginia, described a same-sex couple who had built a life of “hopes and dreams and happiness and love.”
Supporters “want to see our constitution reflect the hopes and dreams for everyone who deserve the right to be married,” she said. “Marriage equality is the law of the land. What I’m asking you here today is to leave that decision to the Virginia voters in November on the ballot.”
Opposition was muted, compared with a month ago, when conservatives warned that the amendment could open the door to polygamy, intrafamily marriage and child marriage — all of which are separately prohibited in state law.
“We affirm the dignity of every person,” Caruso said. “We also believe marriage has an original design and purpose that predates any nation, religion or law. … If you believe, as we do, that marriage is the union of one man and one woman and that we should preserve this original design, please vote to continue reflecting that in our state constitution.”
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