Americans cherish our tradition of participating in civic life through voting. Each election year, we debate with our families, friends and neighbors about the issues we face, and why we support or oppose certain candidates. The right to vote is woven into our identity as Americans. You could say voting is as American as apple pie! As Catholics we view participation in the democratic process as not only a right granted by the Constitution, but also a responsibility given to us as children of God. As the U.S. Bishops’ statement on Faithful Citizenship reminds us, the Catechism teaches, “It is necessary that all participate, each according to his position and role, in promoting the common good. This obligation is inherent in the dignity of the human person….As far as possible citizens should take an active part in public life” (nos. 1913-1915). As this requirement flows from the inherent dignity of the human person, participation in the public life, particularly through voting, should be available to all.
We also know humans, by nature, are sinful and in need of salvation. Unfortunately, some people make unfortunate choices in their lives by committing crimes, for which they are punished, often through incarceration. Even after completing their sentences, those convicted of felonies may permanently lose their right to vote, impeding their ability to fully participate in their communities.
Virginia is one of four states that do not automatically restore voting rights to individuals convicted of nonviolent felonies. Under the Virginia constitution, only the Governor may restore voting rights to persons convicted of felonies. The Virginia Catholic Conference has advocated for a constitutional amendment that would allow automatic restoration of rights for those convicted of non-violent felonies. Despite bipartisan support, and the support of the Governor and the Attorney General, this amendment has not passed the Virginia General Assembly. Recently, Governor McDonnell announced that his office would automatically restore voting rights to people with non-violent felony convictions. Prior to this decision, eligible individuals were required to submit a formal application, which could take up to two years to process. As of May 2013, eligible individuals being released from incarceration or probation will be identified by the Department of Corrections for automatic restoration. Eligible individuals released before May 2013 may now submit a simplified restoration request to the Secretary of the Commonwealth. While we applaud this new policy, the Conference will continue to advocate for a restoration process guaranteed by law.
While voting rights restoration may seem like an odd issue of importance for Catholics, it is fully compatible with the Bishops’ call for Catholics “to live out the Gospel values of forgiveness, reconciliation, and responsibility for all members of the Body of Christ…and seek alternatives that do not simply punish, but rehabilitate, heal, and restore.”
The principles of forgiveness and redemption are a fundamental message of the Gospel, and our criminal justice system must reflect the mercy God gave to us through the death and resurrection of Christ. We ask you to join us in advocating for an amendment that will ensure the Governor’s reforms are just the beginning.