The Virginia Constitution does not allow anyone with a felony conviction to vote unless their rights have been restored by the governor. But on Friday, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) announced he would immediately restore voting rights to anyone who has completed their sentence for a drug offense, and reduce the waiting period for other violent felonies from five years to three. Non-violent felons already have their voting rights restored by a previous executive order.
The move comes two months after U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called for states to roll back felon disenfranchisement laws rooted in Reconstruction-era voter suppression “too often based on exclusion, animus, and fear.” After Reconstruction, when Southern states were passing felon disenfranchisement measures just as slaves were being freed, 90 percent of the Southern prison population was black, Holder said. In Virginia, one in five African American adults is disenfranchised because of a felony conviction, according to the Advancement Project.
Virginia is one of four states that ban all ex-felons from voting for life unless they receive clemency from the governor. But governors in these states can take executive action to alter the policies on these felons. Former Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) already made some progress in this direction when he allowed the state’s non-violent felons to have their voting rights restored at the end of their sentence, while others could apply for restoration after five years. In Iowa, another of the four states, former governor Tom Visack (D) had established automatic restoration of voting rights for all felons by executive order. But Gov. Terry Brandstad (R) reversed that policy after he took office, requiring all felons to apply for restored voting rights via a process that requires individuals to clear hurdles that include a credit check. Only 12 ex-felons have had their voting rights restored through this process out of some 8,000 in the state.
Virginia’s policy will not automatically restore voting rights for those with a violent conviction for an offense other than drugs. And a future governor could alter this policy so long as the constitutional provision remains in place. But those who do have their rights restored also regain their ability to run for office, serve on a jury, or serve as a public notary.
The move is not just an incremental victory for voting rights in Virginia; it is also part of a trend in many states toward easing transition back into society for criminal offenders, after the prison population increased exponentially during the decades of War on Drugs tactics.
Several other states are considering reforms to felon disenfranchisement policies. And a proposal in Kentucky got a boost from U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who has partnered with Holder to end voting bans for ex-offenders. “When you look at who is being deprived of voting they are disproportionately people of color,” Paul told a Kentucky Senate panel. But many of Paul’s “tough-on-crime” fellow Republicans don’t embrace this perspective. Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne (R) warned last month that giving the right to vote to ex-offenders would prompt politicians to campaign on bank robbery. And Democrats in centrist states have hedged on endorsing automatic restoration of voting rights for violent ex-felons.