By Kent Willis, Executive Director
Only a few days ago, we held out hope that before leaving office Governor Tim Kaine would issue an executive order restoring voting rights to most or all of Virginia’s 300,000 disfranchised felons. It would be the final punch in the face of our Jim Crow past and would bring Virginia in line with the 48 other states that had managed to shake off this shameful legacy of racism.
Alas, it was not to be. But why?
Over the last few years, a real reform movement emerged in Virginia. With the exception of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, every major newspaper called for the end of the constitutional provision that permanently removes voting rights from every felon until the Governor restores them. A poll showed that more than 60% of voters supported changing the law.
Groups from across the political spectrum -- from the conservative Rutherford Institute to the League of Women Voters to the NAACP -- came together to seek reform. Religious organizations joined in as well, including the Catholic Conference of Virginia, the United Methodist Conference of Virginia and the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy.
With the General Assembly bogged down by partisan politics, the most viable course for reform was the Governor himself, who has the power to restore voting rights for as many people as he wishes. Not that we have given up on the legislature, but Kaine, a man of faith and a civil rights lawyer with a passion for equality and justice, seemed to be our best shot.
Four years ago, voters and reform advocates began asking Kaine to do something about Virginia’s disenfranchised voters, and they never stopped. But the issue didn’t gain traction with Kaine, who spent much of his term dealing with the bad economy and transportation problems. With a couple of months left in office, though, it seemed like the right time to go back to Kaine and ask him to act before leaving.
Kaine didn’t need to look far for inspiration. Four years ago, the Democratic Governor of Iowa issued an executive order restoring voting rights to every felon who had completed the terms of his sentencing. Two years ago, the Republican Governor of Florida took the bull by the horns and through executive action dramatically rewrote the state’s felon disfranchisement procedures.
To be sure, Kaine should be praised for restoring voting rights for more individuals than any other Virginia governor -- about 4,500. But that hardly shaves a hair off the 300,000 pound disenfranchisement gorilla that looms over us, and it fails to deal with the problem in any systemic way.
So what stood in Kaine’s way? What made him so much more timid than other governors who took action when they needed to? I really don’t know the answer to that, except that there does seem to be something in the musty Virginia air I’ve breathed since the day I was born that inexplicably impedes progress here just when you think it’s going to happen.
One example of this comes from two newspapers, The Virginian Pilot and The Roanoke Times. Both have been outspoken critics of Virginia’s felon disfranchisement law and have demanded reform in recent years. Yet, in the last days of Kaine’s administration, each published meek editorials saying it would be unseemly or an inappropriate stretch of Kaine’s authority to restore voting rights on a large scale just before leaving office.
Kaine appears to have had the same discomfort with acting boldly. To his credit, he and his staff explored this issue in great depth in recent weeks. But they always found more obstacles than solutions. They claimed there was not enough time (four years wasn’t enough?). They said that Virginia’s criminal records were too confusing and decentralized to be used as the basis for an executive order. And, while admitting that a straight forward reading of the Virginia Constitution supported the Governor’s authority to issue an executive order restoring voting rights on a large scale, they said a “better” reading was that it didn’t.
Virginia was the last state in the nation -- the very last -- to eliminate elected school boards, another Jim Crow leftover intended to maintain white control over the public education system. And Virginia didn’t dump poll taxes and literacy tests, the two mainstays of minority voter suppression, until it was forced to.
Now we’re in a race with Kentucky to see which of us will be the very last to reform its felon disfranchisement law.
There’s still the legislature, but under Virginia’s process for amending the Constitution that just won’t happen this year.
Then there’s Governor Bob McDonnell. McDonnell hasn’t shown any sympathy for voter restoration reform, but he is a shrewd politician and a man of deep convictions. Wouldn’t it be ironic if the last formal vestige of Jim Crow in Virginia were wiped out not by a moderate governor with civil rights record, but a conservative one seeking to establish such a record?
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