RICHMOND, Va. - The Virginia Senate will consider legislation backed by Gov. Bob McDonnell to automatically restore nonviolent felons' voting rights after the measure won a committee's endorsement Tuesday.
The Privileges and Elections Committee voted 10-5 to endorse a resolution calling for a constitutional amendment that would give the General Assembly authority to determine which nonviolent offenses would be eligible for automatic restoration of rights after they've served their sentences. Currently, only the governor can restore felons' rights.
Democrats have championed automatic restoration for years but have gotten nowhere in the Republican-controlled General Assembly. They got an unexpected boost when the Republican governor backed the idea in his State of the Commonwealth speech to open the 2013 legislative session.
Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli, who is unopposed for the GOP nomination for governor this year, also supports the change and urged committee members to approve the resolution sponsored by Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth.
"Ten years ago I would not have been here supporting this effort," said Cuccinelli, a former state senator.
But he said years of watching the Legislature elevate misdemeanors to felonies helped convince him automatic restoration is appropriate for "low-level" felons.
"If you look historically at what it means qualitatively to be a felon in Virginia, it's not the same as it was 100 years ago," Cuccinelli said. "This is a modest but system-wide and very fair change to make. It helps to ameliorate some of the overkill on the punishment side of our criminal justice system."
Felons who regain their voting rights would automatically be qualified to serve on a jury _ an outcome that Sen. Thomas A. Garrett Jr., a prosecutor, does not relish.
"There's nothing that scarier to me than having someone convicted of a larceny offense sitting on my larceny jury," said Garrett, R-Louisa.
Garrett and four other Republicans voted against the measure. If it clears the evenly divided Senate, as expected, the resolution likely faces more resistance in a more heavily Republican House of Delegates where all 100 seats are up for election in November. A House subcommittee already has killed that chamber's version of the legislation.
In Virginia, a constitutional amendment must be passed by two legislative sessions _ with a House election in between _ before going to voters in a referendum. That means if the resolution does clear both chambers this year, it will have to be passed again by the 2014 General Assembly.
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