Virginia GOP’s oh-so-convenient electoral change of heart on voting rights for felons

Republican Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell announced a plan this week that will streamline the process by which non-violent felons are given back their right to vote. The plan will also eliminate the two-year waiting period non-violent felons must currently endure before they are eligible for rights restoration.

While a step in the right direction, McDonnell isn’t doing this out of the goodness of his heart.  He’s trying to help his party’s gubernatorial candidate, the very-far-right Ken Cuccinelli, win over moderates in the coming election.   And moderate have every reason not to trust Cuccinelli or McDonnell.

Virginia is currently one of four states that does not automatically restore felons’ right to vote.  Gov. McDonnell has, surprisingly for a Republican, restored more felons’ rights than any governor in Virginia history. Nevertheless, the 4,800 felons whose rights have been restored under Governor McDonnell are a drop in the bucket compared to the estimated 350,000 Virginia felons who have completed their sentences and remain ineligible to vote.

The governor’s change of heart comes on the heels of a report commissioned by Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican nominee to succeed Governor McDonnell in the next election (and a Tea Party firebrand), to help him pivot to the center for the upcoming general election (Cuccinelli is apparently worried that the majority of the voters might not agree with him about outlawing all oral sex, or with his running-mate E.W. Jackson who thinks the President is a Muslim, that Democrats are worse than the KKK, and that gays are pedophiles).

Voting booth via Shutterstock

Voting booth via Shutterstock

Despite Cuccinelli’s attempts to deflect the voters’ attention, it’s not clear he’s going to be successful wooing them on the voting-rights issue either. You see, as a member of Virginia’s state senate, Cuccinelli voted against a rights-restoration amendment to the state constitution five times between 2003 and 2009.

And therein lies the rub: The McDonnell/Cuccinelli plan falls short of amending the Virginia constitution, and will therefore allow fewer felons to become re-enfranchised than many had hoped. The Washington Post notes that the state has only been able to identify and locate 26,000 non-violent felons, and has committed no resources to finding more. Absent a constitutional amendment, McDonnell’s policy can only help the felons that the state tracks down, and so far that number remains at 7% of the total.

Moreover, McDonnelll’s policy pivot is non-binding and particular to his administration – it could be continued or ignored under a hypothetical Cuccinelli administration, after Cuccinelli shores up those moderate votes in the election.

And this is why I am worried about the sincerity of Cuccinelli’s commitment to voting rights, after he’s written so many downright scary things about the topic, and his overall philosophy of governance (e.g., making oral sex a crime).

As Mamie Locke, chair of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, said Wednesday evening at an event for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, “Sinners are allowed back into the church, but not as the assistant pastor.” Voting rights have never been a priority for Ken Cuccinelli; this election-year shift may be a welcome victory for many, but I have a hard time believing its sincerity.

Cuccinelli assures us that he truly is sincere, and claims to have had a personal change of heart on the topic.  If by “personal” he means “electoral,” I’m inclined to believe him.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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