Commonwealth Attorneys enter debate over voting rights for ex-offenders

BOTETOURT COUNTY (WSLS 10) - Commonwealth's Attorneys across the state are already experiencing problems with the Governor's restoration of voting rights for ex-offenders.

Forty-three of those Commonwealth's Attorneys have now signed a brief supporting a state supreme court lawsuit that claims the Governor's blanket restoration is unconstitutional.

According to Botetourt Commonwelath's Attorney Joel Branscom, who signed the brief, the main problem is that they feel the order was issued quickly and not properly vetted, leaving several holes, that now make their jobs harder.

Democratic Delegate Sam Rasoul supports the governor's action.

He admits the restoration still requires clarification in a lot of places, but says this was the only way to move forward.

Branscom says he's like many around the state who support what the Governor is trying to do, just not the way he's doing it.

"I have rarely opposed any of the restoration of rights that have come before us. I can count on one hand the times I've done that in my 20 plus years as a prosecutor, but the way it's done is important," said Branscom.

Branscom says he's already seeing problems as he tries to do his job every day.

"I went through and found 4 people that we've prosecuted here in the last few years that have, that are still serving penitentiary time. On violent felonies, and when we plugged them in to Governor's system, the Secretary of the Commonwealth's system, they came up as eligible to register to vote," said Branscom.

That's because people serving federal time do so before serving time for any state charges.

A loop-hole in the system, and Branscom says it's not the only one.

"Sex offenders who are civilly committed fit the criteria. They're being held, they've been civilly committed, they're not serving a criminal sentence, and their rights showed up as restored," said Branscom.

Branscom says all of these problems could have been caught had this been voted on by the General Assembly, but Rasoul says there's a good reason the Governor didn't go that route.

"For many years this has been brought before the legislature, many times, and every single time the legislature has upheld the racist piece of our constitution that tries to treat people as second class citizens," said Rasoul.

Racist, because the vast majority of ex-offenders without civil rights are African-American.

Rasoul says the Governor's solution is by no means perfect, but in this case, he says the ends justify the means.

"There's certainly a few kinks in the system that need to be worked out, but largely we are overturning something that has been racist and that has been embedded in our constitution for too long," said Rasoul.

Branscom also says another issue that comes up is the restoration of gun ownership rights for ex-offenders.

It requires approval from both the state and the Commonwealth's Attorney, but with the blanket approval from the state, Branscom and others are left with that decision at their discretion, something he says he doesn't have much guidance on.

The lawsuit by General Assembly Republicans will be heard in the Supreme Court of Virginia on July 19th.