Morrissey and felony convictions (but not his)

Former Delegate Joe Morrissey is the gift that keeps on giving. People's taste for political entertainment may vary, and so many may be tired of Fightin' Joe. But the latest chapter in his story, as usual, has a greater moral.

Morrissey is, of course, running for state Senate. In order to run he needed to collect 250 signatures from the Senate district. Since these signatures are submitted for a primary election, run by the parties, the party controls the process in accordance with their state plan, plus Virginia state law. And here's where it gets tricky: the Democratic Party wants nothing to do with Joe Morrissey. So perhaps unsurprisingly, the party district committee rejected 750 of the 972 signatures Morrissey submitted.

Submitting petition signatures is a messy business. You have to get voter names and addresses, and all of these need to verified. Petition challenges are a standard way to try to defeat political opponents before they even get started. If you can knock someone off the ballot, it makes your path to election victory easier. So most savvy candidates try to go way over the required amount; hopefully you have enough to survive any names being removed.

[School Board member - and son of the Mayor - Derik Jones also didn't make the required 250. But he didn't even submit 300, so it's doubtful he can find enough legitimate signatures to get on the ballot. Yet another blow to the Mayor's political reputation - couldn't he help his son get on a state ballot?]

Morrissey certainly knew this, collecting almost four times the required amount. And of course there were problems with his forms. According to the Roanoke Times,

An additional five pages of signatures Morrissey submitted were not even counted. The review concluded that two pages were duplicates, one page did not have dates next to the signatures and two other pages were gathered by a convicted felon whose rights have not been restored.

That last part is intriguing; Virginia law bans convicted felons from registering to vote, unless they go through a lengthy appeals process in the Secretary of the Commonwealth's office. (The Secretary's website currently warns of a backlog.) Morrissey claims that this designation is a mistake, that the collector was NOT a felon, and will certainly include this issue in his appeal of the district committee decision.

But even then, why can't a convicted felon collect signatures? VA law requires that signatures be collected by someone at least able to register, for obscure reasons. And so Morrissey may find himself in the middle of a debate about the rights of people who have supposedly "paid their debt to society," at a time where the Governor's office has been a leader in reform. (Indeed, just this week Terry McAuliffe signed a "ban the box" law that prohibits state employers from asking about prior felony convictions.)

You could try to make a moral argument here, but the main intention seems to be the same intention all ballot access laws have: to restrict access. Parties like to make potential candidates jump through multiple hoops, because it makes it easier for them to do what they're doing to Morrissey now. Getting your name on a ballot shouldn't be a Kafkaesque navigation through bureaucracy, but as long as states continue to let parties drive the nomination process, that's how things will work.

And so Morrissey again finds himself able to say that he's on the side of the little guy, against uncaring institutions. It's an argument that his constituents often find compelling - and a key to his continued political survival.

Apparently Joe himself won't be a felon any time soon: a judge dismissed the felony counts against him, noting that the Alford plea Morrissey agreed to that sent him to jail prohibits him from being charged with any more related crimes. Prosecutors are not happy about that decision, obviously, and may appeal. But who wants to bet on them winning?