Restoring voter rights should be nationwide, not only in Virginia
By Roger Caldwell
Special to the Outlook
“To be Black in America is all too often to be silent about the things we should be loud about – even as we use our votes and voices to selectively express dissatisfaction” says Stephen Roberts of the Dream Defenders.
On April 22, Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed a historic executive order restoring the civil rights of an estimated 206,000 disenfranchised Virginians, and the majority of these formerly convicted felons are Black and minorities. Many conservatives argue that this was done because 2016 is an election year, and this will make Virginia a Blue state. But this was done because it was the right thing to do.
According to Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, Virginia was “among the worst of the worst in terms of disenfranchising people.” Over the last two decades, approximately 20 states have acted to ease restrictions, and restore basic citizenship rights. These citizenship rights would include restoring voter rights, serving on juries, and running for political offices.
In Virginia, to apply for restoring voter rights, a former felon must 1) complete the terms of incarceration, and 2) have been released from supervised probation or parole. This is a historic executive order because 1 out of 5 African Americans in the state will be impacted by this executive order.
Across the country, The Brennan Center for Justice claims that an estimated 6 million former felons are not able to vote because of their disenfranchisement in their state. In some states like Florida, the Governor must personally review each application, and former felons must keep applying for a review that can take five to seven years.
In other states, there are boards, which are back-logged with applications, and it takes years to get through the system. Conservative columnist, David Brooks has been amongst the most eloquent voices supporting the restoration of voting rights for ex-felons.
“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 debts, continues to brand them as criminals, setting them apart from the society they should be rejoining” says David Brooks.
As Hilary and Bernie travel around the country, this should be a major platform and campaign position. The National Democratic leadership should have a major position statement on restoring ex-felons’ voter rights in every state around the country. It is important to know the numbers, and other Governors can issue executive orders and put pressure on state legislatures to pass laws.
These laws around the country are deeply rooted in our racial history, and are fundamentally racist. In the majority of states around the country, it takes three to five years for an ex-felon to qualify for an appointment with the state restoration rights board. It can take another year until the appointment is completed, because the system is broken.
The right to vote is the cornerstone of Democracy, and the foundation upon which all other rights are built. For the last 150 years, Democrats and Republicans have blocked ex-felons the right to vote and it is time for Democrats to be on the right side of history. Last week, Governor McAuliffe’s office released a demographic breakdown of the 200,000 people whose voting rights will now be restored.
Representative Bobby Scott said “What stood out for me was that 45.9 percent of disenfranchised voters are African-Americans even though Blacks only account for 19.4 percent of the Commonwealth’s entire population. That clearly illustrates that the impact of the law was most keenly felt by African-Americans.”