Federal act would affect Virginia’s controversial felon disfranchisement law.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI) and Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution Chairman Russ Feingold (D-WI) introduced bills in both chambers of Congress today that will restore voting rights to millions of American citizens with past felony convictions.
An estimated 5.3 million citizens cannot vote as a result of felony convictions, and nearly 4 million of those individuals are living and working in their communities. The Democracy Restoration Act of 2009 will establish a uniform standard, restoring voting rights in federal elections to millions of Americans who are not incarcerated, but continue to be denied their ability to fully participate in civic life.
The law could dramatically affect voting in Virginia, where more than 300,000 persons are unable to vote due to felony convictions. While felon disfranchisement policies differ widely from state to state, Virginia and Kentucky are the only two states left that permanently disfranchise all felons, requiring an act of the Governor for voting rights to be restored.
Felon disfranchisement in Virginia is linked to the 1901 “Jim Crow” constitutional convention, in which delegates openly sought to diminish the political power of African-Americans through poll taxes, literacy tests, appointed school boards, and disfranchisement of felons. Currently, about half the disfranchised voters in Virginia are African-Americans. Virginia was forced to eliminate poll taxes and literacy tests, and was the last state in the nation to allow elected school boards.
“If the Voter Restoration Act becomes law, Virginia will be forced either to allow former felons to vote in all elections or be placed the untenable position of having separate voter rolls for federal and state elections,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “This could be just the push needed for Virginia to make the final break from its Jim Crow past.”
Last year, the ACLU of Virginia launched the Virginia Voter Restoration Project to revise Virginia’s constitutional provision prohibiting all felons from voting. In 2009 the Virginia Senate passed a resolution to amend the state Constitution, but the measure failed in the House.
For more information on felon disfranchisement in Virginia, visit http://www.restoreourvote.org.
A copy of the ACLU of Virginia’s briefing paper on felon disfranchisement is available online at http://www.restoreourvote.org/BriefingPaper.pdf.
A copy of the ACLU’s factsheet on the Democracy Restoration Act is available online at http://www.aclu.org/images/asset_upload_file494_39408.pdf
A copy of the ACLU/Brennan Center report on felon disfranchisement, entitled “De Facto Disenfranchisement,” is available online at http://www.aclu.org/votingrights/exoffenders/37000res20081001.html.

Contact: Kent Willis, Executive Director, ACLU of Virginia, 804-644-8022