Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.com.
By: Paul Friedman
When Gov. Terry McAuliffe issued an executive order returning voting rights to over 200,000 ex-felons, it led to some 13,000 people around the commonwealth — including Arlington, Alexandria,, Fairfax, Fairfax City, Prince William, and Loudoun residents – successfully registering to vote.
After a Republican legal challenge, the Virginia Supreme Court voted 4-3 to invalidate that order. Now, the governor has issued individual restorations of rights to the 13,000 who had registered and announced procedures for restoring rights for approximately 200,000 additional ex-felons by the end of his term designed to withstand further legal challenge.
At the heart of this issue is whether voting is a right or privilege. A right can only be limited under special circumstances. A privilege is granted by those in power.
Democrats believe voting is a right that should be restored upon completion of a felon’s sentence.
By contrast, Republicans legislators in many states have treated voting as a privilege — leading various federal courts to reject Republican measures discriminating against African Americans and others perceived as likely Democratic voters.
Given Virginia Republican legislators’ efforts to limit people — especially Democrats — from voting, it’s not surprising they thought McAuliffe’s goal was to help Hillary Clinton win Virginia in the upcoming presidential election by expanding the number of people eligible to vote.
In reality, the governor sees voting as a fundamental right and wants to overcome Virginia’s sad history of limiting ballot access. That is why he wants every Virginian who has paid his penalty to society to be able to exercise their Constitutional right to vote — “I personally believe in the power of second chances and in the dignity and worth of every single human being.”
Such votes — even if they skewed Democratic — would not likely change the outcome of the 2016 election in a state Barack Obama won decisively in 2008 and 2012. Given new polls showing Clinton-Kaine with double digit leads in Virginia, Republicans can no longer plausibly pretend that restored voter rights are likely to affect the 2016 outcome.
The governor also wants to end current de facto discrimination and continue moving us forward on the civil rights path — likening voting discrimination to segregation, poll taxes and bans on interracial and same-sex marriages.
Politifact reported the Virginia Department of Corrections’ most recent racial breakdown of its prison population in mid-2014 showed that of “almost 37,000 inmates . . . 58.5 percent were black, 38.6 percent were white, [and] 2.2 percent were Hispanic … [whereas, the] U.S. Census Bureau estimates blacks comprised 19.7 of Virginia’s population in mid-2014.” Thus, the discriminatory impact of depriving voting rights to ex-felons speaks for itself.
This comes on top of Virginia’s tragic treatment of African Americans over the course of its history.
The Virginia Historical Society describes some of it this way:
After the Civil War, African Americans were free but not equal. The Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1875, and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution, were made virtual dead letters by hostile court decisions, culminating in 1896 in Plessy v. Ferguson, which gave legal sanction to the principle of “separate but equal” facilities segregated by race.
In Virginia, the South, and some northern states, Plessy v. Ferguson both confirmed the status quo and gave impetus to even more rigid segregation laws. For example, Blacks had to sit at the back of streetcars or stand if there were not enough seats for whites. They were made to sit at separate sections of theaters, libraries, and train stations. They could not use water fountains, bathrooms, beaches or swimming pools used by whites. They could only order takeout food from restaurants that served whites. They attended separate, usually ramshackle schools. Social life and everything from sports teams to funeral parlors were segregated.
Even after Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, where the Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” was neither equal nor Constitutional, Virginia fought to retain a Jim Crow world. Its opposition was so infamous it was named “Massive Resistance.”
Through the actions of great Virginians such as former Republican Gov. Linwood Holton (the father of former Education Secretary Anne Holton and father-in-law of her husband, current U.S. Senator and Democratic VP nominee Tim Kaine), Virginia has taken steps to overcome its blatantly racist past.
Now, under McAuliffe, Virginia is taking an essential further step toward overcoming other vestiges of past racism that remain in place today. We should be proud, but far from complacent. There’s still more work to do.
Paul Friedman is the President of Paul Friedman Strategies, a Democratic political and non-profit consulting firm. He also does development work for business clients. He and his wife Lori, long-time Virginia residents, live with their black lab rescue dog Sadie and three-legged tabby rescue cat Martin.