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Jim Crow makes a comeback in Virginia

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell took a second giant step back in time this week, bringing back restrictions reminiscent of the Jim Crow era. The Governor plans to require everyone seeking to have their voting rights restored following a non-violent conviction to write an essay outlining their contributions to society and the “reasons why you believe the restoration of your civil rights is justified.”

  • Erika Wood
April 15, 2010

Origin­ally published in The Grio.

Just in case you had any doubt about his inten­tions in declar­ing April to be Confed­er­ate History Month, Virginia Governor Bob McDon­nell took a second giant step back in time this week. Not only is the Confed­er­acy to be celeb­rated in Virginia, but its Jim Crow legacy is making a comeback too.

Governor McDon­nell plans to require every­one seek­ing to have their voting rights restored follow­ing a non-viol­ent convic­tion to write an essay outlining their contri­bu­tions to soci­ety and the “reas­ons why you believe the restor­a­tion of your civil rights is justi­fied.” Applic­ants are thus asked to provide evid­ence that may – or may not – be eval­u­ated under a completely arbit­rary and ever shift­ing paradigm. In other words, prove the unprov­able.

Virginia is one of only two states remain­ing (Kentucky is the other) that deny the right to vote for life to every­one with a crim­inal convic­tion, unless the indi­vidual applies for, and is gran­ted, clem­ency from the governor. Virginia would also be the only state in 2010 to require a writ­ten essay.

The roots of Virgini­a’s crim­inal disen­fran­chise­ment law are firmly planted in Jim Crow. During the Virginia Consti­tu­tional Conven­tion of 1901–02, deleg­ate Carter Glass (later a prom­in­ent U.S. Senator) described the crim­inal disen­fran­chise­ment provi­sion as part of a plan to “elim­in­ate the darkey as a polit­ical factor in this state in less than 5 years, so that in no single county…will there be the least concern felt for the complete suprem­acy of the white race in the affairs of govern­ment.”

The law certainly has had its inten­ded effect. More than 300,000 people have lost the right to vote for life in Virginia. One in five African-Amer­ic­ans, and one in four African-Amer­ican men, is perman­ently disen­fran­chised in the Common­wealth. African Amer­ic­ans make up one fifth of Virgini­a’s popu­la­tion, but over half of those denied the right to vote are African-Amer­ican.

The applic­a­tion to get one’s right to vote back has always been oner­ous in Virginia, and the number of people “approved” each year is tiny. Former Governor Tim Kaine approved the most applic­a­tions in history, a whop­ping total that amoun­ted to less than 2 percent of the disen­fran­chised popu­la­tion.

But McDon­nell’s newest require­ment is not just another box to check in a bureau­cratic process. It intro­duces an entirely arbit­rary and subject­ive stand­ard that allows the most power­ful elec­ted offi­cial in the state to play fast and loose with one of Amer­ica’s most funda­mental rights. This essay exam is no differ­ent than the arbit­rary, unpass­able tests that politi­cians and govern­ment offi­cials employed for decades after Recon­struc­tion to keep African-Amer­ic­ans from voting. And it is no differ­ent than the notori­ous liter­acy tests employed during the same period. If you can’t read, you can’t write. All of these nefar­i­ous tricks were outlawed by Congress with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Another piece of federal legis­la­tion, the Demo­cracy Restor­a­tion Act, is now pending before Congress. That bill would restore the right to vote in federal elec­tions to every Amer­ican citizen who is out of prison, living in the community.

Accord­ing to the Wash­ing­ton Post, McDon­nell’s admin­is­tra­tion said the new essay require­ment is designed to “put a human face on each applic­ant.” The thing is, each applic­ant already has a human face. Each one is a person. Each one is an Amer­ican. Each one is a Virginian. The Confed­er­acy lost the battle to deny the rights of citizen­ship to African-Amer­ic­ans. No celeb­ra­tion of Confed­er­ate History Month, and no imagin­ary time machine, can change that.