Governor Terry McAuliffe is working to reinstate the voting rights of 13,000 formerly incarcerated people in Virginia in order to ensure that they are able to vote in the presidential election this November. The move is his second this year and is an important step towards ensuring that all people have the right to vote in the United States.
Governor McAuliffe first attempted to restore voting rights to disenfranchised former felons in April, but that attempt was struck down by the Virginia Supreme Court which ruled that the governor did not have the power to grant voting rights to 200,000 formerly incarcerated people en masse.
Now, McAuliffe has decided to reinstate voting rights individually, moving to restore the rights of 13,000 former felons who were registered to vote before the Virginia Supreme Court’s ruling. This is a small percentage of the original 200,000, but the governor’s tenacity is important and will help Virginia move in the right direction on this issue.
According to data from The Sentencing Project, only two states, Maine and Vermont, currently have no voting restrictions on inmates, parolees, probationers, and ex-felons. In twelve other states, those with felony convictions lose some or all of their voting rights. The remaining states limit the voting rights of those with felony convictions either for the duration of their incarceration, or for the entirety of their sentence (through parole or probation).
These restrictions have historical roots in ancient western societies. Known as “civil death,” breaking the law could also mean losing the right to participate in civic life, including appearing in court, voting, and entering into contracts. Borrowing from English common law, the practice was brought to the United States, although it was not widely encouraged throughout the developing justice system.
In a 2012 article entitled “The New Civil Death: Rethinking Punishment in the Era of Mass Incarceration,” legal scholar Gabriel J. Chin uncovers the proliferation of civil death punishments with the onset of mass incarceration. The implementation of “collateral consequences” with felony (and some misdemeanor) convictions, could include loss of access to federal housing, the ability to adopt, collect pensions, serve on a jury, and obtain public service employment, in addition to the loss of voting rights.
Since the criminal justice system disproportionately affects African Americans, so too does felon disenfranchisement. The United States has a long history of diminishing the voting rights of black Americans and felon disenfranchisement has roots in Jim Crow laws, effectively undermining and disqualifying significant portions of the black vote for decades. As a result, one in thirteen of all African Americans are unable to vote. In Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia, one in five black adults is disenfranchised.
Felon disenfranchisement laws impact crucial elections. The Sentencing Project estimates that felon disenfranchisement has affected the results of 7 Senate races from 1970 to 1998, as well as the 2000 Bush-Gore presidential election. This demonstrates the power of the African American vote and what is at stake when black people’s voting rights are taken away.
Governor McAuliffe’s advocacy for the people of Virginia is an important step for civil rights in the United States. Due to the latent discrimination in the criminal justice system, individuals who are charged with felony crimes must have a voice and must have place in public life to counteract the systemic oppression therein. For civil rights, for human rights and for self-determination, felon disenfranchisement must be abolished.
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