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Keep Politics Out of Virginia Voting Rights Restoration

In Virginia, Gov. McAuliffe’s order restoring voting rights to 200,000 has been met with rancorous and partisan public debate. But that what’s most important: McAuliffe’s order was a common sense move towards a more fair democracy.

  • Tomas Lopez
  • Kwame Akosah
July 19, 2016

Today, the Virginia Supreme Court will hear argu­ments in a suit chal­len­ging Gov. Terry McAul­if­fe’s (D) April order that restored voting rights to 200,000 Virgini­ans with past felony convic­tions. While the court proceed­ings will stick to legal argu­ments, the public debate has been need­lessly rancor­ous and partisan.

After the governor issued the exec­ut­ive order, House Speaker William J. Howell (R) accused McAul­iffe of using it as a “step­ping stone” for a cabinet appoint­ment that would be earned by getting Demo­cratic voters signed up to sway the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. Later, the governor respon­ded that Repub­lic­ans should “quit complain­ing” and go out and earn votes.

But look­ing at voting rights restor­a­tion through a polit­ical lens ignores several import­ant points and obscures what’s most import­ant here.

First and fore­most, hypo­thes­iz­ing about partisan implic­a­tions misses the fact that Virgini­a’s disen­fran­chise­ment policy has long been an outlier compared to the rest of the coun­try. Virginia is one of only four states whose consti­tu­tion imposes life­time disen­fran­chise­ment for all people with past crim­inal convic­tions. And the consequences have been stark: hundreds of thou­sands, includ­ing one in five African-Amer­ican Virgini­ans, barred from voting for life. In revers­ing this anti­quated and draconian policy, McAul­iffe brought Virginia a step closer to the main­stream. With the order, Virginia joined 19 other states that also restore voting rights to all citizens complet­ing sentences for past crim­inal convic­tions. Another 20 states and the District of Columbia restore rights even earlier or never revoke them in the first place.

Claims that McAul­if­fe’s order will turn elec­tions for Demo­crats are not only irrel­ev­ant, they are completely unsup­por­ted by the facts. Eleven of the 19 states that share Virgini­a’s new approach to rights restor­a­tion have both Repub­lican governors and Repub­lican legis­lat­ive major­it­ies. This includes states like Texas, Oklahoma, South Caro­lina, and Kansas. And in states where governors have restored rights through large-scale exec­ut­ive actions and policy changes in the last decade — Iowa, Flor­ida, and Kentucky — Repub­lic­ans have had contin­ued elect­oral success in state elec­tions.

And Virgini­ans suppor­ted the move. A mid-June poll found that 65 percent of Virginia voters — includ­ing many Repub­lic­ans and over 60 percent of inde­pend­ents — suppor­ted the governor’s order.

This context under­scores the fact that revers­ing wide­spread disen­fran­chise­ment should be about basic fair­ness and human dignity, not scor­ing polit­ical points.

It is worth remem­ber­ing that McAul­if­fe’s order only restores rights to citizens who have fully completed all aspects of their sentences. Nearly half of those re-enfran­chised under the order completed their sentences more than five years ago. They have long lived in their communit­ies, work­ing, rais­ing famil­ies, and paying taxes — all while barred from join­ing their neigh­bors and having a say at the ballot box. Consider the story of Shelia Carter, a Norfolk woman barred from voting for 28 years after a felony convic­tion, who told the press how voting made her feel “proud of herself” and “human.”

Further­more, research backs the idea that the re-entry process and public safety are served when citizens with past convic­tions are engaged in civic life and vote. One study found “consist­ent differ­ences between voters and non-voters in rates of subsequent arrests, incar­cer­a­tion, and self-repor­ted crim­inal beha­vior.” And data from the Flor­ida Parole Commis­sion found the recidiv­ism rate of Flor­idi­ans with crim­inal convic­tions whose voting rights were restored was one-third the rate of those who remained unable to vote. There is also no evid­ence that points to disen­fran­chise­ment having a deterrent effect on future crime.

McAul­if­fe’s order is the latest break­through in a national trend. Over the past two decades, more than 20 states have taken action to allow more people with past crim­inal convic­tions to vote, to vote sooner, or to access that right more easily. That forward progress made Virginia even more of an outlier until this past April. After the Virginia Supreme Court hears argu­ments in the lawsuit, we may hear in the press about Repub­lic­ans taking on the Demo­cratic governor, and both sides may offer some sharply worded quotes. But sound­bites only obscure the real­ity on the ground: McAul­if­fe’s order put Virginia squarely in the main­stream when it comes to restor­ing the right to vote — and the state and thou­sands of new voters are better for it.

Photo credit: Flickr/Andrew­Bain