By Kent Willis, Executive Director, ACLU of Virginia
Felons in Vermont never lose their right to vote. They can even vote while incarcerated. Lawmakers in Vermont lock up lawbreakers just like every other state, but they also know that felons who vote are half as likely to commit another crime as those who don’t. Seems that the people of Vermont, known for their pragmatism, have a good reason for allowing everyone to vote.
Virginia, on the other hand, is one of only two states that permanently take away the right to vote from everyone convicted of a felony, leaving restoration of rights exclusively in the hands of the Governor. The Governor gets to decide -- based on whatever criteria he chooses -- whose voting rights will be returned and whose won’t.
In Vermont everyone can vote if they are of age and have established residency. In Virginia, more than 300,000 individuals cannot vote solely because they are felons. The vast majority of these individuals are law abiding citizens with jobs and families. They have made mistakes in their lives, bad ones in some instances, but they have repaid their debt to society according to our criminal justice system.
All the other states sit somewhere between the Virginia and Vermont poles (excepting Maine, which shares Vermont’s policy, and Kentucky, which is Virginia’s dubious twin). The vast majority of states restore voting rights after incarceration or completion of parole or probation. A handful of states restore rights for some, but not all, felons.
If the pragmatic argument about reducing crime not sufficient for Virginia’s lawmakers, there are other compelling reasons for restoring voting rights.
First, the policy is stained by its racist origins. Although felon disfranchisement has a long history, it was most fully embraced and utilized as a Jim Crow measure to reduce African-American political influence in the South. The delegates to Virginia’s 1901 Constitutional Convention instituted or perpetuated four policies with this explicit purpose in mind: poll taxes, appointed rather than elected school boards, and felon disfranchisement.
The first three of these policies are not gone, although it is worth noting that literacy tests and poll taxes remained until banned by federal law, and Virginia was the last state in the nation to allow elected school boards. Felon disfranchisement is the sole remaining vestige of Jim Crow in Virginia, reason in itself for eliminating it.
Second is our sense of fair play and justice. It is said that the most important measure of a civilization is how it treats lawbreakers. Our founders agreed. In fact, the Bill of Rights, praised almost universally for its sweeping language protecting freedom of speech and religion, actually gives a lot more ink to fairness in the criminal justice system. Of the first eight amendments to the Constitution, four are dedicated to the rights and treatment of persons suspected, accused, or convicted of committing crimes.
After felons repay their debt to society, our sense of fair play allows them to own a home, operate a car, hold a job, go to school, attend religious ceremonies, get married and raise families. So why can’t they vote?
Pragmatists would say that being able to vote -- like being able to engage in these other basics of American life -- helps integrate felons back into society and reduces the likelihood they will commit another crime. They might also add that lower crime rates mean fewer burdens on taxpayers, who foot the bill for police, prosecutors and prisons.
Historians would probably note that the only reason voting is excluded from our list is that felon disfranchisement was political in the first place. African-Americans’ owning a home or holding a job was not a significant threat to white hegemony. Voting was.
Governor Tim Kaine has been praised for restoring voting rights to nearly 4,000 felons, a record number that surpasses Mark Warner and more than doubles the restorations credited to other recent governors. But even 4,000 restorations leaves almost 99% of Virginia’s felons unable to vote. It is hardly a number to rave about, and there’s no guarantee the next governor will be half as generous.
In our democracy, where free speech is guaranteed, voices without votes have occasionally soared above the fray, guiding change on little more than the rightness of the position espoused. This is how the abolition, suffrage and civil rights movements started.
Felons in Virginia don’t have a Horace Greeley, Susan B. Anthony or Martin Luther King to speak for them, but I am willing to bet that each one of these great advocates for reform would support a fair and just law in Virginia that allows felons to vote once they have repaid their debt to society.