Opinion: Past Discrimination In Virginia Remains Root Cause For Denying Felons The Right to Vote

January 20, 2015

Recent Virginia governors have made strong progress in reforming laws regarding the restitution of voting rights for felons and ex-felons. But the denial of voting rights for people with felony convictions in Virginia and other states still disproportionately affects black citizens, a history of the practice shows in the latest issue of The Virginia News Letter published by the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.

Felon disenfranchisement’s long history can be traced to 19th century attempts to undercut the voting strength of African-Americans, according to the article by civil rights history scholar Helen A. Gibson. Unlike other discriminatory measures, such as poll taxes and literacy tests, felon disenfranchisement has continued largely unabated until the present time, she writes. Of the almost 6 million citizens prohibited from voting in the most recent national elections due to felony conviction, some 40 percent are African-American.

Noting that broad-based felon disenfranchisement post-incarceration is unique to the United States among major industrialized nations, Gibson writes that Virginia has had one of the most discriminatory records for denying voting rights to felons and ex-felons until recently. But key steps by recent governors have made the path to restoration of rights smoother, she adds.

The state’s current disenfranchised population numbers approximately 450,000 of its 6.4 million voting-age residents, and its felon disenfranchisement laws disproportionately affect black citizens, the article shows. As of 2010, more than 20 percent of the state’s voting-age African-American population could not vote as a result of a felony conviction, and nearly 7 percent of the state’s total population 18 and older was disenfranchised.

“These statistics reflect both the extent of Virginia’s felon disenfranchisement laws and the fact that African-Americans in Virginia are currently incarcerated at a rate approximately six times greater than the white population,” she writes. Ethnic minorities such as Hispanic-Virginians are currently incarcerated at a rate comparable to that of non-Hispanic white Virginians, she notes.

Gibson received her M.A. in American history, culture and society at the University of Munich with her recent thesis on “The Role of Race in the History of Felon Disenfranchisement in Virginia.” She received her B.A. in American studies at U.Va.

Virginia governors and civil rights organizations have worked to reform laws regarding the restitution of civil rights for felons and ex-felons over the last several years. Non-violent offenders now in prison receive an automatic restoration of rights upon leaving prison and past offenders may apply for restoration. The waiting time before ex-felons convicted of violent crimes can apply to restore their right to vote has been reduced to three years after their release, and drug offenses are no longer deemed “violent.”

Three governors have played the most important role in the steps toward more comprehensive enfranchisement, Gibson writes. Then-Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, used his executive clout in 2002 to streamline the application process for non-violent offenders, reducing the mandatory post-sentence, five- to seven-year waiting period for non-violent offenders to three years and reducing the number of pages in the application for non-violent offenders from 13 to one.

Following an executive order of then-Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, in May 2013, approximately 350,000 Virginians convicted of non-violent felonies became eligible to have their voting rights restored without the previous mandatory three-year waiting period. Yet because the state had not kept track of ex-felons who had finished their sentences, probations and parole, and paid their court costs, fines and restitutions, there was no efficient means for the commonwealth to inform past offenders of the news. Relying on the help of advocacy groups like Virginia Organizing, statewide progress was slow following the July 15, 2013 implementation of the shorter process.

In April 2014, Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, moved to reduce the waiting time for restoration-of-rights applications for violent offenders from five to three years following the completion of a sentence, parole, probation and payment of court fines for a violent felony conviction. The governor also petitioned successfully to have drug offenses removed from the list of violent felonies – “a racially significant move in a state where 20 percent of the state population, 60 percent of Virginians in prison and 72 percent of Virginians incarcerated for drug offenses are African-American,” Gibson writes.

Proponents of full voting rights, including for those in prison, argue that such rights keep felons and ex-felons connected to society at large and support the purported objective of incarceration, which is rehabilitation, Gibson writes. “Moreover, voting is seen as a civic responsibility,

and the right to vote is one of the core principles of democracy.”

Embracing the view that felons need and deserve to be reconnected to civic life, Maine and Vermont, as well as most countries, allow incarcerated felons to vote, she points out.

A constitutional amendment repealing current felon disenfranchisement measures could change the system, but would require broad public support to pass in Virginia, she writes.

Virginia voters rejected a constitutional amendment to streamline the restoration of rights process in 1982 and the General Assembly has voted many times against bringing it up again.

“Virginia is not alone in its continued denial of civil rights to inmates, parolees, probationers and many ex-offenders,” she concludes. “The moment has arrived, however, to acknowledge both the discriminatory origins and continued racial impact of Virginia’s felon disenfranchisement laws. Virginia has long been a state of ‘firsts.’ There is still time to become the first Southern state to join other world democracies in guaranteeing the right to vote to all of its adult citizens, including inmates and ex-felons.”

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