Thursday, November 7, 2013

Virginia needs to restore the voting rights of ex-felons

The good news for Virginia Republicans is that they lost the governor's race by only a little more than 50,000 votes. The bad news is that 450,000 adults were ineligible to vote because they are ex-felons, and that an overwhelming majority of those adults would vote Democratic if they could. Virginia is one of two states that prohibits ex-felons from voting (Kentucky is the other). These people have served their sentences but are not allowed to vote.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the states may restrict voting rights of ex-felons based on the ambiguous language of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Amendment says that states may revoke voting rights for "rebellion or other crime[s]". The conservative Burger Court ruled in 1974 that this meant that the states had broad discretion in denying the vote to ex-felons. This is yet another example of how the Fourteenth Amendment, which was intended to guarantee voting rights to African-Americans, has been used to disenfranchise the very people it was intended to help. About half of the disenfranchised voters are African-Americans. Ninety percent of African-Americans who voted in 2013 voted for McAuliffe.

In Virginia, ex-felons may petition the governor to have their voting rights restored. Governor McDonnell promised to restore voting rights to more Virginians than any previous governor, but he fell well short of that goal or any real progress in reinstating ex-felons. McDonnell reinstated fewer than 4,000 ex-felons, less than 1 percent of those unable to vote. McDonnell placed restrictions on ex-convicts, such as a waiting period of 2 to 4 years, that made it more difficult and time-consuming to process applications. Thousands of ex-felons, many of them guilty of non-violent offenses, continue to be punished long after their terms of imprisonment are over.

Terry McAuliffe should be to return the right to vote to all ex-felons. This could be done by the governor acting alone. It would be better, of course, to pass a law that makes this change permanent, but the legislature in Virginia is still very reactionary.

Another way to accomplish this result is for the U.S. Congress to pass a law that applies to every state. There is no need for a constitutional amendment since the current state of affairs stems from a Supreme Court interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment, not the Amendment itself. Once the federal government passes a law, the states will be precluded from legislation in this area of law.

At least 250,000 African-Americans would be reinstated for future elections. Republicans will have a hard time winning statewide office in Virginia until they discover a way to counteract white racism in the state and in the party.

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