by Hope R. Amezquita, Staff Attorney & Legislative Counsel
The Virginia General Assembly is beginning to resemble Bill Murray’s movie Ground Hog Day! Every year, the ACLU of Virginia lobbies to ensure the fundamental right to vote for all eligible Virginians. And, every year the results are very much the same! Instead of ensuring the right to vote, the General Assembly goes in the opposite direction, year after year.
For example, with only days left in the 2015 session, all chances to repeal Virginia’s felon disenfranchisement law are dead. Like in the movie, the Commonwealth is stuck every year in an endless and frustrating cycle. The cast of characters that includes the ACLU of Virginia repeatedly witnesses the same proposals seeking to repeal Virginia’s felon disenfranchisement provision introduced in the session. Over and over again, they are nonchalantly killed by the same character, the House Privileges and Elections Committee.
Every year the result is the same – legislators continue to ignore the embarrassing and grossly discriminatory disenfranchisement statistics in Virginia. And, the numbers are only growing worse year after year. According to a report by the Sentencing Project looking at updated state-level research, national disenfranchisement rates have grown significantly. There were an estimated 1.17 million people disenfranchised in 1976, 3.34 million in 1996, and over 5.85 million in 2010. Nationally, 2.5% of the voting population is disenfranchised (or about 1 out of every 40 Americans). The case, however, is much worse in Virginia.
Virginia is one of the top six states with the highest overall disenfranchisement rates at more than 7% of its voting age population. And, because of abhorrent discrimination in the criminal justice system, Virginia puts itself in the top three states that disenfranchise African-Americans. Virginia bans 20% of voting age African Americans from voting---that’s 1 out of every 5 African Americans living in the Commonwealth. The report estimates that 351,943 Virginians who have been convicted of felonies and have completed their sentences— people who have paid their “debt” to society and are now working, paying taxes, and living in the community — can’t vote. Overall, a total of 451,471 Virginians are unable to exercise their constitutional right to vote because of the Commonwealth’s egregious disenfranchisement law. Without legislative action, the numbers of disenfranchised Virginian’s will only continue to rise.
Currently, the only way for an individual convicted of a felony to get their voting rights back is to ask the Governor for restoration of his civil rights. No matter how many restoration of rights petitions Governor McAuliffe grants though, the number will never be significant as long as people run the risk of permanently losing their constitutional right to vote. It is imperative that the House Privileges and Elections Committee stops its repetitive cycle of indifference year after year.
It is time for the Virginia General Assembly to stop failing on the issue of restoration of rights. There is nothing more important in a democracy than the preservation of our citizens’ constitutional right to vote. A majority of the public supports restoration of rights. It’s time for our elected officials to stop ignoring the issue and act. In the meantime, the ACLU of Virginia will be working on new and innovative ways to change the script on felon disenfranchisement.
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