by Paul Goldman
With all due respect to those on the front lines, resetting the language of the debate may prove useful going forward. In his highly acclaimed book on the abortion issue, author Will Salatine of Slate Magazine gave me more credit than I deserved for showing Democrats how to reset the issue of the right-to-choose so that it could win elections advocates had been losing. But in the biggest restoration of political rights fight in recent times – forcing the Democratic Party to accept the equal rights of African-Americans to run for statewide office – the use of language by the Wilder campaign to define the debate did prove the basic point Salatine made: the language of a debate very often determines the winning side.
Some observations as regards the “automatic restoration of rights” debate.
First: With all due respect, if you read the constitutional amendments from say Delegate Lopez or Delegate Dance – two very able and dedicated individuals on this subject – they ARE NOT PROPOSING AN AUTOMATIC RESTORATION OF RIGHTS. Rather, they are proposing to amend part of the Constitution to give the General Assembly the power to create a faster, more streamlined process depending on the will of a majority of the lawmakers. As a matter of political logic, this is almost certainly not going to be AUTOMATIC as this term is perceived by both the general public and those hoping to have their voting rights restored.
Two: With all due respect, looking at the issue of restoration of one’s right to vote in Virginia from solely the prospective of the Governor’s clemency power MISSES A KEY VARIABLE. Why? In many cases, it is the definition of a felony that is the issue. Under the VA Constitution, one loses his or her right to vote upon conviction of a “felony”, the term defined by general law, not constitutional law. Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli appears to be the only one who “gets it” on that level. Accordingly, there are things the GA can do today to correct certain injustices in this regard at least prospectively.
Third: There is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING in the VA Constitution which prohibited any prior or current Governor from creating the very “AUTOMATIC PROCESS” contemplated by either Lopez or Dance or Governor McDonnell. NOTHING AT ALL. This is important as I will point out below.
Summary: With all due respect, this may be a case where the advocates for restoration of rights are giving themselves a self-inflicted political wound. I have similar scars all over my body. They may be inadvertently creating an incorrect image of the debate which in turn may be causing resistance among the public, and thus their representatives.
In common parlance, the public views the term “automatic” in this context as meaning that when the felon completes his or her jail sentence, he or she will automatically get to vote again. But again, this is not the process contemplated. Rather, the process is going to require the individual to file some papers proving that he or she has satisfied, for instance, any restitution required. MEANING: Someone in authority, probably the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office, is going to be responsible for making at least a cursory check to determined the accuracy of the application. THIS IS NOT CONVEYED BY SAYING SOMETHING IS AUTOMATIC, at least in my opinion.
So let me humbly suggest: A more fruitful way to frame the debate may be to more accurately convey to the public the precise nature of the process contemplated.
PERHAPS MOST IMPORTANT: It might actually be most beneficial for restoration of rights advocates to focus energies on getting Cuccinelli and McAuliffe to jointly agree that if elected, each would put in place, USING THE EXISTING GUBERNATORIAL POWER, the type of process herein contemplated.
Once in place, a future governor would be hard-pressed to change the process as long as the public believes it is working acceptably. This is not the ultimate long term solution, but it might prove a far better use of energy in the near and middle term, plus far more useful than is currently envisioned as a way to make real progress toward solving the problem in the lifetimes of those affected.