By Claire G. Gastañaga, Executive Director
The state constitution disenfranchises all Virginians with past felony convictions permanently, but grants the governor the authority and discretion to restore voting rights -- an authority Gov. Terry McAuliffe has exercised wholeheartedly by restoring the vote to more than 156,000 Virginians. Despite his aggressive effort, however, the number of disenfranchised Virginians continues to grow, and because of racial disparities in policing, prosecution, and incarceration rates, the echoes of the Jim Crow era from the constitutional disenfranchisement provision are getting louder rather than fading away.
There is no question that the felon disenfranchisement provision was intended to and increasingly does fall more heavily on African-Americans. At present, there are approximately 509,000 disenfranchised individuals with felony convictions in Virginia, 53 percent (272,000) of whom are African-American. This is true despite the fact that African-Americans represent roughly 20 percent of the total adult population in Virginia.
Consider the 1.24 million African-Americans in Virginia above the age of 18, and the startlingly disproportionate effect of this law sharpens into focus: 22 percent of African-Americans of voting age in Virginia are disenfranchised. In other words, more than one in five African-American adults cannot vote by law in the Commonwealth of Virginia. In a state in which the criminal justice system is fraught with racial disparities, where African-Americans constitute 47.4 percent of all arrests while only representing a fifth of the total population, the percentage of disenfranchised African-Americans will likely continue to increase, not recede.
Clearly, Gov. McAuliffe deserves praise for his work, supplanting prejudice with decency in the form of hundreds of thousands of reinstated voters. But a review of the aforementioned statistics shows that Gov. McAuliffe’s best efforts cannot eliminate the racial disparities in voting disenfranchisement that can be traced to every level of our criminal justice system. Add to that the current demographic reality that there is no guarantee future governors will follow in Gov. McAuliffe’s restorative justice footsteps, and the scenario becomes clear. The only way to remedy the continuing adverse racial impact of felon disenfranchisement is to amend the Virginia Constitution to guarantee all Virginia citizens over 18 a right to vote that cannot be abridged by law.
Voting, like freedom of speech and religion, is a fundamental right that government cannot deny. It is time we made clear that the vote is the essential currency of democracy, and it belongs to the people. It is not a chit to be used by the government to reward or punish its people, for voting is the only “just basis for self-government”.
Voting is how we decide who governs us, not a tool for elected officials to use to decide who gets to choose them. All of us, irrespective of circumstance, deserve to have a say in how we are governed and by whom. And, yes, that includes people who have been convicted of felonies whom we are happy to count for purposes of drawing legislative districts while they are in prison (read: prison-based gerrymandering) yet define as unworthy when it comes to casting a ballot after they have returned to our communities. An amendment to the constitution would make it clear that every Virginian, regardless of past transgressions or current privilege, has the right to an equal voice at the ballot box and to participate in our democracy unrestrained.