Carrying on a Legacy: Rights Restoration

By Elizabeth Wong, Associate Director

Perhaps being born on the fourth of July should have been a sign that Sen. Yvonne Miller was destined to be a great civic leader.  In 1983, she was elected as the first African-American woman to sit in the Virginia House of Delegates and four years later as the first African-American woman to serve in the state Senate.  Sen. Miller was a trailblazer, role model and advocate for those whose voices often go unheard.  The Commonwealth lost a true hero when she passed away earlier this month.

Having received her undergraduate degree from a segregated school then gone on to teach in Norfolk’s then-segregated public schools, Sen. Miller knew first hand the injustices of the Jim Crow era. In spite of – and likely because of – her experiences, Sen. Miller was a champion of civil rights issues.  Among her causes was the restoration of voting rights.

Virginia is one of only four states in the nation –Kentucky, Florida, and Iowa are the others – that permanently takes the right to vote away from persons convicted of a felony, even after they have fully completed their sentences and become productive members of their communities.  In Virginia, the state Constitution only allows the Governor to choose to restore a felon’s voting rights.  This means that a single person decides on a case by case basis whether hundreds of thousands of Virginians can ever vote again, one of the most fundamental rights in our democracy.

While Governor Bob McDonnell streamlined the process and is on course to restore voting rights to several thousand people – more than his immediate predecessors—that number is still only a small fraction of the more than 375,000 people who are disenfranchised because of a felony conviction.

As we’ve previously written, the state’s modern history of felon disenfranchisement dates back to 1870 when, after the adoption of the  Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution guaranteeing the right to vote to all, Virginia lawmakers added the felon disenfranchisement provision to the Virginia Constitution.  At the time, scores of former slaves were being arrested and convicted of crimes, and the lawmakers knew that the felon disenfranchisement provision would have an adverse impact on black Virginians.

Efforts to disenfranchise minority voters continued with the 1901 Constitutional Convention when legislators, who were still intent on denying the vote to African-Americans, also mandated the poll tax and a literacy test as requirements to vote.  And, as the policy’s originators intended, felon disenfranchisement continues to disproportionately impact minority communities today. In Virginia, one in five African-American adults is disenfranchised. (pdf)

The number of disenfranchised people continues to grow, and our current “tough on crime” justice system contributes to that increase.  Each year, legislators classify more and more crimes as felonies, ensuring that more individuals are denied the right to vote, potentially for the rest of their lives.  A quick search of the Virginia code shows that there are over 240 references to a class 6 felony, which happens to be the penalty if someone were to steal a chicken valued between $5 and $200, or a goat valued at less than $200.

The majority of people convicted of felonies are not murderers, and many may not even serve time in prison.  The vast majority of disenfranchised persons are no longer incarcerated, have “paid their debt to society” and are tax-paying citizens with jobs and families who are involved in their communities. They deserve the right to vote and have a say in who represents them.

In addition to being the just thing to do, restoring voting rights is sound policy.  Restoring voting rights reduces crime.  Research shows that individuals who vote after completing their sentences are half as likely to commit another crime as those who do not vote. (pdf)  Additionally, law enforcement officials have recognized that successful offender re-entry and civic participation are connected.  The Brennan Center for Justice reports that the American Probation and Parole Association released a resolution calling for restoration of voting rights upon completion of prison, finding that “disenfranchisement laws work against the successful re-entry of offenders.”

While other discriminatory measures aimed at barring African-Americans from voting, such as poll taxes and literacy tests, have been repealed, felony disenfranchisement continues.  It is time for that to change. Legislators should honor Sen. Miller by reforming the state’s felon disenfranchisement law.  Del. Charniele Herring, for one, has already picked up the baton and re-introduced for the 2013 session a resolution to amend the Virginia Constitution to automatically restore voting rights to persons convicted of nonviolent felonies.  Legislators on both sides of the aisle should join the cause.