Originally published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
The Commonwealth of Virginia has a big problem, and Governor Tim Kaine has the power to create a big solution. The question is: will Governor Kaine meet the problem with a signature, or a shrug?
Virginia has the dubious distinction of being the last of two states in the country (Kentucky is the other) that denies the right to vote—for life—to anyone with a criminal conviction. Unless, that is, an individual goes through a lengthy application process to prove to the governor that he is worthy of the right to vote; even then the governor can deny that application for any reason or no reason at all.
The result: 300,000 Virginians are denied the right to vote, even though they have completed their entire criminal sentence and are living and working in the community. There is ample evidence in the historical record that this law is firmly rooted in Jim Crow, and its intended effects continue today: one in every six African Americans in Virginia, and one in four African-American men, is permanently disenfranchised under this law. African Americans make up only one fifth of Virginia’s population, but over half of those are disenfranchised.
Governor Kaine has the power to consign this relic of Virginia’s Jim Crow history to the dust heap of history, and to take an important stand for civil rights as he prepares to leave office. The language in the Virginia Constitution is remarkably clear: the Governor has the power “to remove political disabilities consequent upon conviction.” There is no legal requirement that individuals make an application, or that the governor perform an individual assessment, or that the governor report to or otherwise involve the legislature.
In short, Governor Kaine has the power to restore voting rights to 300,000 Virginians with the stroke of a pen. It is that simple.
Yes, implementing such an order may involve some complexity. There may be some red tape to untangle and bureaucracy to navigate. But 48 states have found a way to make it work. In the vast majority of the country, once you are eligible to vote under the law you simply register like everyone else. Our society recognizes that when the criminal justice system has determined that someone is ready to rejoin the community, he has earned a second chance and is placed on equal footing with his fellow citizens.
So while figuring out the details may be hard, ending the injustice created by Virginia’s current policy is absolutely the right thing to do. The right to vote forms the very foundation of our democracy. It is simply too important to just shrug and walk away from it.