The following was originally published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Nov. 7, 2017.
By Claire Guthrie Gastañaga and Amol Sinha
If all eyes aren’t on New Jersey and Virginia today, they should be. As the one-year anniversary of the election of President Donald J. Trump approaches, our states become the first in the Trump era to elect new governors.
As the federal government abandons its traditional role of protecting civil rights and enforcing anti-discrimination laws, state and local policymakers are more important than ever in defending and expanding constitutional rights. The next governors of the Garden State and the Old Dominion must take that burden to heart.
With no incumbents in either state, the next governors will start fresh. That comes with an obligation to show what America looks like at its best — a hopeful counterpoint at a moment dominated by the legacy of America’s impulses at our worst.
The incoming governors, whoever they are, must stand with their residents against a federal administration that increasingly shows outright disdain for civil and human rights. As the directors of the New Jersey and Virginia ACLU affiliates, we call on our next governors to address several urgent civil rights issues.
First, it’s time to stop blocking the entrance to the voting booth, privileging some voters while keeping others out. Our new governors must be advocates for stronger voting rights and actively battle federal attempts to weaken the franchise. That begins by refusing to cooperate with the federal “Election Integrity” commission headed by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.
For our country to be the democracy we claim to be, our state constitutions can no longer revoke a person’s voting rights for a criminal conviction. Voting is a fundamental right. It is no more a privilege that someone “deserves” or forfeits based on merit than the right to practice religion or have legal representation. In addition to overturning laws that disproportionately disenfranchise Black voters, our lawmakers must ensure that no person ever loses the right to vote, period.
Second, our new governors must not volunteer our states’ law enforcement agencies as collaborators with the federal government in the enforcement of reckless, intolerant policies targeting immigrants. The valued immigrant community members of New Jersey and Virginia strengthen our states’ economies and social fabric. Harming them literally harms our states’ residents. Public safety suffers when swaths of people fear that interaction with local law enforcement could tear them from their families and homes.
Our governors must foster relationships with immigrant communities by protecting the interests of all residents, including through issuing driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, allowing undocumented students eligibility for financial aid and in-state residency for tuition, and barring police from asking about immigration status when it is not directly relevant to an investigation. Any other course of action would further diminish trust in government and law enforcement and place federal concerns over the needs of local people.
Third, our new governors must recognize that enforcement of marijuana possession laws is a defining civil rights struggle of our era and a matter of racial justice. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has begun reinstituting the failed war on drugs — our governors must convince him to retreat. America is due for a reckoning with the devastation wrought on communities of color by the drug war.
As a nation, we must address those injustices and disparities, not only by ending the regime of racially disparate arrests, but by actively including people of color in economic opportunities, whether upon re-entry after a prison sentence or in a regulated cannabis market. In both Virginia and New Jersey, black individuals are arrested for marijuana possession at three times the rate of white people despite similar usage rates. A conviction for marijuana possession can result in prison time, hefty fines, driver’s license suspension, loss of a job and housing, and immigration consequences.
Our new governors will be the ones keeping vigil ensuring equal protection of the laws for people of color, women, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ individuals. The responsibility over whether their constituents can go to work, walk on the streets, attend school, and live their lives without discrimination rests in large part with our executives.
That two states as divergent as ours share such injustices signals the nationwide sweep of these civil rights abuses, but national solutions have proved elusive. When federal officials abdicate responsibility to defend the Constitution they swore to uphold, the onus falls to us.
The next governors of New Jersey and Virginia can set the course for the country in resisting the Trump administration’s constitutional crisis. It’s up to us, the people, to hold them to that path.