By Kent Willis, Executive Director
Frank Anderson became one of Virginia’s most celebrated disenfranchised felons last year when Governor Tim Kaine refused to restore his voting rights because of… speeding tickets.
Convicted of a non-violent felony more than a decade ago, Mr. Anderson paid his debt to society, got a job, and became a productive member of his community again. A little over a year ago, he read about how to get his voting rights restored, figured he qualified in every way, and submitted his application to the Governor’s office.
He was, to say the least, shocked and dismayed when he learned that his application had been denied because of several speeding tickets he had received in recent years.
Not only did this seem to be a bizarre barrier to voting, but nowhere in the Governor’s rules for restoration of rights was there any mention of speeding tickets as a problem.
Of course, in Virginia, it really doesn’t matter what the rules are, or even if there are any rules. Under the Virginia Constitution, voting rights are left to the whim of the Governor, who may restore voting rights for every felon, for none, or just when he’s in the mood.
Mr. Anderson had no recourse but to wait and apply again after Governor Bob McDonnell was elected.
While McDonnell made some unfortunate missteps regarding felon disenfranchisement in his first few months -- at one point compelling former felons to write something akin to an essay to have their rights restored -- he later dropped the essay requirement and instituted new rules to ease the restoration process.
The news that McDonnell, who didn’t seem to be an advocate for restoration reform, would shorten the waiting period for non-violent felons and that he would process all applications in 60 days was carried by practically every media outlet in Virginia.
What was not widely publicized was the fact that McDonnell had quietly dropped Kaine’s ridiculous unwritten rule allowing a couple of speeding tickets to preclude restoration of rights.
So today Frank Anderson is celebrating his right to vote again, as he should be. But Mr. Anderson is doing more than that. Over the last year, while witnessing first hand the hurt and harm of Virginia’s felon disenfranchisement law, he has became an advocate for reform of the law.
Mr. Anderson now knows that Virginia and Kentucky are the only two states in the nation that permanently remove the right to vote from all felons upon conviction, and then leave it up the governor to decide who gets their rights restored.
He knows that more than 300,000 Virginia residents are denied the right to participate in our democratic way of life because of this law.
He knows that felon disenfranchisement is deeply rooted in Virginia’s Jim Crow past, when it, poll taxes and literacy tests were used to suppress the African-American vote.
And, he knows there is a correlation between restoring voting rights and lower rates of recidivism, a practical argument for restoring voting rights that should appeal to every citizen and every elected official, regardless of political affiliation.
So when the 2011 General Assembly comes around, I’m willing to bet that Mr. Anderson will again be joining the ACLU, the Interfaith Center for Public Policy, the NAACP, the League of Women Voters, the Rutherford Institute, the Catholic Conference and many other civic and religious groups from across the political spectrum to push Virginia’s legislators to amend the state Constitution to allow for automatic restoration of rights for felons.
Unfortunately, amending the Constitution in Virginia is a pain. The General Assembly has to pass the same resolution twice with an intervening state election. Then it goes to the voters through a referendum.
The Senate is generally supportive, but advocates for reform have been unable to convince the House of Delegates to go along, and year after year, restoration resolutions fail there. As for the voters, polls show that a significant majority support restoration reform.
Only a few months ago, nearly everyone felt we had lost a voice for reform when Governor Kaine completed his term and that we had gained a voice against reform with the election of Governor McDonnell. Based on recent actions, though, it appears that the McDonnell administration has a greater understanding of the inherent unfairness of Virginia’s felon disenfranchisement law than Kaine.
It seems, then, that only the House of Delegates stands in the way of reform.
Democracy is democracy only if every qualified person has the right to vote. To cut out any segment of society, even those who have committed crimes, undermines our democratic principles and serves no practical purpose. We need your help to make the House of Delegates realize that.
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