Virginia Amendment Would Allow Inmates To Vote, Potentially Roiling Politics In Counties With Prisons
Luke Rosiak on January 5, 2020
- Virginia Democrats Mamie E. Locke and Kaye Kory will introduce a measure Jan. 8 that would allow prisoners to vote from jail in the state.
- The bill appears to allow prisoners to vote in the jurisdiction of the jail, potentially making inmates a powerful voting bloc in sparsely populated communities.
- It is one of numerous radical bills that could be passed rapidly after the Democrats take control of Virginia’s legislature for the first time in years.
Democratic lawmakers in Virginia, who recently won control of the state’s legislature, proposed altering the state’s constitution to allow prisoners and mentally handicapped individuals to vote.
The national debate previously focused on whether felons should be able to vote after they serve their time.
Only two other states allow inmates to vote. But unlike in Maine and Vermont, the language of the Virginia proposal suggests inmates could vote as residents of the jurisdiction where the prison is.
Virginia’s largest state prisons are in sparsely populated areas where the inmate population could exert significant influence on local government.
A former Republican member of the Virginia Board of Elections, Clara Belle Wheeler, told the Daily Caller News Foundation that could lead to the inmates running the asylum.
“It’s completely unreasonable to think it’s fair or equitable that a prison population that contributes nothing to the betterment of the locality would be allowed to vote on local issues, such as commonwealth attorneys,” she said.
In some states, felons register as Democrats more than six times as often as Republicans, a 2013 academic study published in the American Academy of Political and Social Science found. It also cited another study that found 73% of voters who turn out for presidential elections vote Democrat.
“They know that. That’s exactly why that bill’s there,” Wheeler said.
Senate Joint Resolution 8, which is slated to be offered Jan. 8, would “Amend Section 1 of Article II of the Constitution of Virginia as follows”:
“The only qualifications of voters shall be as follows: Each voter shall be a citizen of the United States, shall be eighteen years of age, shall fulfill the residence requirements set forth in this section, and shall be registered to vote pursuant to this article … The residence requirements shall be that each voter shall be a resident of the Commonwealth and of the precinct where he votes.”
It strikes the following: “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 bill was sponsored in the Senate by Mamie E. Locke, a Democrat from Hampton, and in the House by Kaye Kory, a Democrat from Falls Church. Neither lawmaker responded to questions from the DCNF.
A DCNF analysis found that if Virginia allows prisoners to vote from the location of their prison and if they follow the trend, then inmates could be a powerful bloc.
- Lunenberg Correctional Center houses up to 1,185 inmates in Lunenburg County, which has 12,369 residents and voted for Donald Trump in 2016 with a margin of 980 votes. The county is represented by a mix of Democrats and Republicans in downballot offices.
- Indian Creek Correctional Center houses 1,002 inmates in Chesapeake, which has a population of 243,000 and narrowly voted for Trump with a margin of 1,444 votes.
- Lawrenceville Correctional Center houses up to 1,555 prisoners in Brunswick County, which has 16,435 residents. The county is represented by a mix of Republicans and Democrats. It voted for Hillary Clinton for president in 2016 by a margin of 1,428, with 58.5% of the vote. If all prisoners voted in the Democratic primary, they could make up one-third of the electorate that chooses the candidates who would go on to win the general election.
- River North Correctional Center houses up to 1,024 prisoners in Grayson County, which has a population of 15,708. It is represented by Republicans in the U.S. House, the state house, and the state senate. It voted for Trump at 77%, a margin of 4,186 votes. Clinton received 1,407 votes. That means prisoners, if they all voted for Democrats, could nearly double the Democratic base in the county.
In 2016, then-Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, sought to allow all the state’s estimated 200,000 felons to vote after they’d served their time. State courts said the governor was not able to change policy but could grant exceptions in individual cases.
McAuliffe employed a loophole by using a mechanical pen to automatically sign tens of thousands of letters.
McAuliffe served as chairman of Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. He said he had “no idea” how felons would vote and said he had never thought about it. Virginia’s 2014 U.S. Senate race was decided by only 17,000 votes, while the 2013 attorney general’s race came down to 165 votes.
Wheeler said the state previously made a change to allow college students to vote from either the jurisdiction where their college is or where they’re from, allowing Democrats from Northern Virginia to vote for Democratic policies in more conservative areas with colleges.
“Abermarle County had a $32M bond referendum on the table two years ago,” she said. “I was against it but the students voted for it and it passed. Well, the students aren’t going to pay off that bond, they’re going to go home.”
With their new control of both chambers, Virginia Democrats could rapidly pass many sweeping bills when they convene in January.
Matthew Truong, a Republican running for Congress in the commonwealth and a Chinese immigrant, told the DCNF that Democrats are more concerned with changing the voter base to gain political power rather than helping people. He drew a comparison to another Virginia bill that seeks to promote “affordable housing” in every neighborhood by allowing multi-family housing in all suburban neighborhoods reserved for single-family houses.
Its sponsor, Del. Ibraheem Samirah, previously said suburbanites were “mostly white and wealthy” and “living in a bubble,” and that suburban neighborhoods amount to “modern-day redlining.” He suggested Dec. 22, 2019, that the change would enable more public housing in the suburbs.
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