“That’s crooked politics,” he told the booing crowd. “They’re giving 200,000 people that have been convicted of heinous crimes, horrible crimes, the worst crimes, the right to vote because, you know what? They know they’re gonna vote Democrat. They’re gonna vote Democrat and that could be the swing. That’s how disgusting and dishonest our political system is.”
Virginia’s 150-year-old felon disenfranchisement law was originally created with the explicit intent of preventing African Americans from gaining political power after the Civil War. In fact, one state senator who pushed for the policy said he hoped that it would “eliminate the darkey as a political factor” and ensure the “complete supremacy of the white race in the affairs of government.” Thanks to the disproportionate arrest and incarceration of African Americans in the Commonwealth, the policy was effective. Even in 2016, it prevented more than 20 percent of African Americans of voting age from casting ballots in Virginia, according to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) said last week that his move to restore voting rights to all who finished serving prison sentences was a step towards undoing this racist legacy. Yet Republicans in the state immediately labeled it a partisan tactic designed to help McAuliffe’s longtime ally Hillary Clinton win the state in November.
McAuliffe brushed off these accusations and told Virginia Republicans to “quit complaining and go out and earn these folks’ right to vote for you. Go out and talk to them.”
Trump is correct that the majority of those who will benefit from this policy are likely to vote for Democrats, but there is nothing stopping the GOP from reaching out to the group and winning them over. In a close swing state like Virginia, where President Obama won by fewer than 200,000 votes in 2012, such an effort could tip the scales this November.
And increasingly, Republicans are also embracing the concept that those who have fully paid their debt to society should have their civil rights restored. McAuliffe’s predecessor, Gov. Bob McDonnell, signed an executive order to allow Virginians with non-violent felony records to regain their voting rights more quickly. Charlie Crist, a Republican when he served as Florida’s governor, made it much easier for thousands of ex-felons to vote. On the federal level, conservatives like Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) have called for striking down felon disenfranchisement laws, noting that they disproportionately impact black and Latino voters.
“White kids make mistakes. Black kids make mistakes. Brown kids make mistakes,” Paul told the Kentucky state Senate committee considering a constitutional amendment to restore the voting rights of some felons. “But when you look at the prison population, three out of the four people in prison are black or brown.”
Paul and other advocates have also pointed to the link between restoring voting rights and reducing recidivism.
Virginia voters who regained their voting rights after returning from prison told ThinkProgress they felt more connected to and invested in their communities as a result.
“It made me whole again,” Richmond resident Wilbur Scott said last November.
“Now that I have my rights restored, knowing that I have a voice — I feel honored,” added Raheem Muhammad.