A new year means new opportunities. It is 2013, and our democracy should not have to suffer through another cycle of rancorous, partisan, and business-as-usual politics — there is too much we need to fix.
In Virginia, Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell already seized the opportunity of a new legislative cycle to support wide scale voting rights restoration for people with past criminal convictions. Yet, Virginia legislators squandered the chance to move beyond partisanship by voting against restoring rights.
Virginia is one of only four states in the nation that permanently disenfranchises those with past criminal convictions unless they individually apply to the governor to have their rights restored. The legislation McDonnell supported would have ended this exceptionalism and automated voting rights restoration for non-violent offenders, an important step toward ensuring that people living and working in their communities are given full access to the democratic process. On Tuesday, this legislation stalled in the Virginia House before even being considered by a full committee. Legislators who voted down the proposal expressed satisfaction with the current system — a system with bureaucratic and financial hurdles that force the vast majority of persons with felony criminal convictions to remain second-class citizens well after they have served their time.
It is hard to reconcile this legislative complacency with the visible human cost of Virginia’s exceptionally restrictive policies. Bennett Barbour, who passed away last week, was wrongfully convicted of rape charges in 1978 and recently exonerated. His path to regaining his right to vote, like other Virginians with past criminal convictions, was intensely burdensome and complicated. Fortunately, the Innocence Project, with support from the larger community and McDonnell himself, helped Barbour regain his rights and cast his first and last ballot this past election. “You don’t know what this means to me,” Barbour repeated to those assisting him as he voted for the first time in 34 years.
McDonnell should be commended for streamlining the voting rights restoration process in Virginia so that 4,400 people, including Barbour, have had their voting rights restored during his tenure. But there are 100 times that many people with past criminal convictions living in Virginia. McDonnell has made voting rights restoration legislation a priority because the current system does not go far enough. McDonnell understands that individual action by a governor is all too easily undone by future administrations, as we have seen in the restrictions of voting rights in Iowa and Florida.
Only a week into the new legislative session, lawmakers in Virginia have wasted the opportunity presented by McDonnell to move beyond politics-as-usual. Perhaps worse, they have attempted to deprive the public of a vital debate regarding both public safety and the strengthening of our democracy. The human consequences of continuing these policies are clear: Voting is an intensely meaningful act that in Virginia has been denied to those with past criminal convictions for far too long. It is a new year, and McDonnell’s strengthened support of voting rights restoration is a signal of future change that cannot and should not be ignored.
Photo by Vox Efx.