By Sam Isaacs
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – Delegate Rosalyn Dance of Petersburg gave Gov. Bob McDonnell a standing ovation when he announced his support for restoring the voting rights of nonviolent felons during his State of the Commonwealth address this week.
Dance, a Democrat who has championed that issue during her eight years in the House, was surprised and delighted that the Republican governor declared, “It is time for Virginia to join most of the other states and make the restoration of civil rights an automatic process for nonviolent offenders.”
“When I heard him announce his support, I was stunned at first,” said Dance, who represents the 63rd House District, which includes Petersburg, part of Hopewell, and parts of Chesterfield, Dinwiddie and Prince George counties.
“Then I was on my feet applauding with both Democrats and Republicans.”
In recent years, the General Assembly has defeated efforts, including proposals by Dance, to return the rights to felons who have served their time.
However, she believes McDonnell’s support could persuade lawmakers to pass such legislation.
Dance also recognized a former senator from Norfolk for her longtime advocacy of the issue.
“Sen. Yvonne Miller, who recently passed away, was a strong leader on voting rights restoration. So it is fitting that now is the time we will take the first steps into making that happen,” Dance said.
She said that for 20 years, Democrats have been pushing for the restoration of voting rights for felons. Virginia is one of two states (the other being Kentucky) where convicted felons cannot automatically vote after they have served their time in prison. In Virginia, felons who have completed their sentences must petition the governor to have their rights restored.
Historically, Republican politicians have not looked favorably on this issue, Dance noted.
But McDonnell has made restoring the civil rights of nonviolent felons a priority. During his State of the Commonwealth speech, he said his administration “has now restored the civil rights of more Virginians than any other administration in state history.”
“While we have significantly improved and fast-tracked the restoration of civil rights process, it’s still an executive process,” said McDonnell, who is completing his fourth and final year as governor.
“As a nation that believes in redemption and second chances, we must provide a clear path for willing individuals to be productive members of society once they have served their sentences and paid their fines and restitution.”
McDonnell noted that two Republican delegates – Greg Habeeb of Salem and Peter Farrell of Henrico County – have introduced bills to address this issue.
“I urge you to support legislation for the automatic restoration of rights for non-violent felons,” the governor told a joint session of the House and Senate on Wednesday, the start of the 2013 legislative session.
Several Democrats in both the House and the Senate also are sponsoring constitutional amendments to address the matter.
Dance said that she is happy to see bipartisanship support of the issue and that she is “cautiously optimistic” about the chances for passage.
“This is a very big step,” she said. “I commend the governor and am excited to get a bill on his desk.”