ACLU says Virginia law could be susceptible to similar challenge; calls for Governor to restore voting rights through executive order

Richmond, VA – The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled today that Washington’s felon disfranchisement law violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965 because racial disparities in arrest and conviction rates in the state leave a disproportionate number of minorities without the right to vote.
“Voting rights advocates in Virginia have been saying for years that race discrimination in the state’s criminal justice system, when combined with our felon disfranchisement law, becomes race discrimination in voting,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis.
In Virginia, the numbers are stark.  According to a 2007 report from the Sentencing Project, African-Americans are 5.9 times more likely to be incarcerated than whites.  African-Americans make up 20% of the state’s overall population but more than 50% of the disfranchised voters.  According to a 2000 report from the Virginia Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, African-Americans accounted for 51% of the arrests for the most serious crimes, more than double what population figures would suggest.
The Ninth Circuit’s ruling comes just as civil rights and faith-based groups across the state are pressuring Governor Tim Kaine to issue an executive order automatically restoring voting rights to most or all of Virginia’s 300,000 former felons, all of whom lost their right to vote when they were convicted.  (See “Groups Ask Governor to Issue Executive Order Restoring Voting Rights of Virginians with Felony Convictions, January 5, 2010”)
The most practical argument against felon disfranchisement laws comes from studies showing that former felons who vote are only half as likely to be re-arrested as those who do not.
Virginia’s disfranchisement law is tied to the state’s Jim Crow past.  Delegates to Virginia’s 1901 Constitutional Convention -- who overwhelmingly supported poll taxes, literacy tests, and felon disfranchisement --  left unambiguous statements in the minutes indicating that their primary purpose was to prevent minorities from voting.
“The Virginia Constitution gives the Governor of Virginia the power to rid us of this shameful, racist and counterproductive law,” added Willis.  “This court ruling comes at the perfect time for the Governor, giving him the rationale and the impetus he needs to institute positive change before leaving office.”
While most states have shed or dramatically modified their felon disfranchisement law in recent years, Virginia is out of step with the rest of the nation.  Today, Virginia and Kentucky are the only two states in the nation that permanently disfranchise all felons, requiring an act of the Governor for voting rights to be restored.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals case is Farrakhan v. Gregoire (Docket # 06-35669).
Contact: Kent Willis, Executive Director, 804-644-8022