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It Isn’t Complicated: Restore the Vote to 300,000 Americans

A call to Governor Tim Kaine to use the last few days in his tenure to restore to a huge number of citizens their right to vote.

  • Erika Wood
Published: January 14, 2010

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.