by Kent Willis, Executive DirectorIt's a new year and many of us are thinking about new beginnings, resolving to be more involved in our communities, and re-committing to doing right by our neighbors. And today, a group of organizations in Virginia is asking Gov. Tim Kaine to embody this New Year's spirit by ending the state's excessively harsh voter disfranchisement policy.
Right now in Virginia, approximately 300,000 people with past felony convictions who have finished their sentences — meaning they are not in prison and are not on probation or parole — are barred from voting for life because they have past felony convictions. Only one other state (Kentucky) has such a punitive disfranchisement policy; all other states have apparently realized that barring so many people from voting is just plain un-American.
Virginia's disfranchisement law is a holdover from the Jim Crow era. At the 1901-02 Virginia Constitutional Convention (where felony disfranchisement laws were debated), one delegate explained: "This plan will eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this State in less than 5 years, so that in no single county…will there be the least concern felt for the complete supremacy of the white race in the affairs of government."
The remnants of this racially-biased policy are still clear today. While 6.8 percent of Virginia's voting age population as a whole is disfranchised, 19.8 percent of the state's African-American voting age population — approximately 200,000 individuals — is barred from voting.
As we enter this new decade, do we seriously believe that policies like these make us the land of the free and home of the brave?
During his last weeks in office, Gov. Kaine can and should join the ranks of former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist by using his executive power to expand democracy. With the stroke of a pen, he can restore voting rights to all Virginians who have finished their sentences, and can put in place a process for automatically restoring rights to others who complete their sentences in the future. Please contact Gov. Kaine and urge him to act now!