On Friday, April 22, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe issued an executive order restoring the voting rights of approximately 200,000 Virginia ex-felons. Governor McAuliffe made the right decision.
“Virginia is part of a national trend toward restoring voter rights to felons … Over the last two decades about 20 states have acted to ease their restrictions, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University,” reports the New York Times.
According to Myrna Pérez, director of the Voting Rights and Election Project at the Brennan Center, “what this will do is move Virginia, which was among the worst of the worst in terms of disenfranchising people, to a much more middle-of-the-road policy.”
Discussion: Why enfranchising ex-felons is the right thing to do
Conservative columnist David Brooks has been among the most eloquent voices supporting the restoration of voting rights for ex-felons. In a 2010 column, Brooks summarized the case in favor of their enfranchisement:
There is no good reason to deny former prisoners the vote. Once they are back in the community — paying taxes, working, raising families — they have the same concerns as other voters, and they should have the same say in who represents them. Disenfranchisement laws also work against efforts to help released prisoners turn their lives around. Denying the vote to ex-offenders, who have paid their debt, continues to brand them as criminals, setting them apart from the society they should be rejoining.
Last Friday, Brooks re-affirmed his position when asked specifically about Governor McAuliffe’s action in Virginia: “One of the weird things in our whole criminal justice system is, we have got people who are 50, and 60, well past what they call criminal menopause, and they’re perfectly upstanding citizens, and they’re not the person they were at 19, and yet we continue to punish them.”
The historical context in which Virginia disenfranchised ex-felons
Virginia’s record as one of the “worst of the worst” in disenfranchising ex-felons is inextricably tied to its Confederate past. Virginia ex-felons are disproportionately black. As a 2015 article from the Weldon Cooper Center at the University of Virginia documents, Virginia’s record is long, sordid, and explicitly racist. In advising Governor McAuliffe about his April 22 executive order, researchers turned up a 1906 report:
that quoted Carter Glass, a Virginia state senator, as saying [disenfranchisement] would “eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this State in less than five years, so that in no single county of the Commonwealth will there be the least concern felt for the complete supremacy of the white race in the affairs of government.”
A.E. Dick Howard, the legal scholar who is credited as the principal author of Virginia’s current constitution, advised Governor McAuliffe that he had the legal authority to act unilaterally via executive order. Action by the Virginia legislature was unnecessary. Other lawyers disagree, claiming that Governor McAuliffe’s executive order violates the Virginia constitution. Lawsuits and efforts at legislative repeal or amending Virginia’s constitution might happen.
For the last 150 years, first Democrats and now Republicans in the Virginia legislature have compiled a dismal record blocking the restoration of ex-felons’ voting rights. Based on Howard’s legal advice, Governor McAuliffe acted appropriately in by-passing the legislature.