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Government in the shadows: General Assembly 2013

Published: January 30, 2013, 11:23 pm ET
Opinion Assistant

Civil rights trampled, procedural rules ignored and voting privileges denied and restricted. It may sound like the government of Zimbabwe or Russia, but this is instead the usual business of the Virginia General Assembly, which is now in its spring 2013 session.

Virginia politicians have already successfully lived up to the underhanded and discriminatory legacy of their predecessors, and this year’s session is not even halfway over.

It began on a high note, with Gov. Bob McDonnell supporting the automatic restoration of voting rights for non-violent felons who’ve completed their sentence and parole. Currently, former felons must apply to have the governor restore their right to vote, a process that can take years. More than 350,000 former felons in Virginia cannot vote, according to a study by The Sentencing Project, a criminal justice reform advocacy group.

In America, we like to claim that our justice system does not just punish criminals, but rehabilitates them into citizens. But if that’s true, then a felon, especially a non-violent one who has served his or her time, should have the privileges of a regular citizen. But the Virginia House of Delegates, controlled by conservative Republicans, disagreed this spring and voted to keep approximately five percent of the voting age population disenfranchised.

Last week, while most Virginians were watching the inauguration of Barack Obama, Virginia Senate Republicans rammed through a redistricting bill in a strategy so nefarious that the governor and lieutenant governor, both Republicans, denounced their actions.

This bill gerrymanders the Virginia Senate districts to ensure future Republican control of the body in an increasingly Democratic state. What was most deceitful about this vote was its intentional timing; with the lieutenant governor refusing to vote in favor of the bill in the tied Virginia Senate, according to an article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Instead, Senate Republicans waited until Inauguration Day, when they knew a Democratic senator would be away, allowing the bill to slip through 20 to 19.

Virginia became the laughing stock of America last January because of measures by Virginia Republicans to suppress and muddle women’s rights. This past Monday, Senate Republicans decided that the best way to avoid criticism of their abortion votes was to conduct them quickly and surreptitiously.

In an unannounced meeting of a Virginia Senate committee, Republicans killed a bill that would have made ultrasounds optional before an abortion. The meeting lasted mere minutes, according to an article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and over half of the committee’s Democratic members were absent. The bill’s sponsor, a state senator and medical doctor, was not allowed to speak in favor of it.

Amid the General Assembly’s bitter fight to halt the march of progress, there has been one bright spot: the Senate will likely repeal an 1877 law making it a crime for unmarried couples to “lewdly and lasciviously” live together.

But this is still Virginia, so there’s no way to be sure.

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