Nerdland: Voting Rights Restoration in Dixie

“In a democracy, voting is a right, not a privilege. Yet in our democracy, well over five million Americans are unable to participate in this most basic, fundamental right of citizenship because of past criminal convictions. As many as four million of these people live, work, and raise families in our communities, but because of past convictions are still denied the right to vote.” — ACLU

Something extraordinary has happened in the Commonwealth.  I am a Virginia girl — born and raised.  We are traditionally a conservative strong-hold.  Home of the Capitol of the Confederacy, one of the first states to adopt Confederate History Month.  Typically as red as red can be.  Now mind you we did go blue for President Obama both in 2008 and 2012, but that is just the changing tide of Virginians -mostly due to the demographic changes in Northern Virginia and the Hampton Roads areas.  But really this year already something amazing has happened that delighted and surprised me, then made me just as angry and cranky as normal.

In the Commonwealth of Virginia (no we aren’t just a “state”), if you are adjudicated a felon your voting rights are revoked, along with your rights to own a firearm (so much for this talk about everyone’s 2nd Amendment right to carry…because I sure haven’t seen the NRA advocating for felons to have their carrying privilege reinstated….things that make you go *cough* bullcrap *cough*).  In most states, including the Commonwealth — there is a process to having your voting rights restored (sorry, still negative on gun ownership).  However, in some states you can loose your rights to vote for life (source: ACLU).  The ACLU states that there are rougly 5.3 million Americans who are disenfranchised from voting due to “a criminal conviction, most of which are non-violent in nature, thirty-nine percent have fully completed their sentences, including probation and parole, yet such individuals are still deprived of their right to vote. In several states, people with criminal records encounter a variety of other barriers to voting, including, most often, cumbersome restoration processes or lengthy waiting periods before rights restoration applications may even be submitted.”  Further, this disenfranchisement disproportionately effects communities of color due to their historical roots in the Jim Crow era.  The ACLU states that roughly 1.4 million of the above cited 5.3 million American’s who are disenfranchised are African-Americans.  Voting disenfranchisement codes in states like Mississippi, stem from specifically intended constitutional changes that removed voting rights for crimes that were shown to be committed most often by African-Americans.

From: 123RF Royalty Free Stock Photos

As Former Gov. Tim Kane (now Senator Kane) left office in 2010 without restoring felon’s voting rights, the Commonwealth was stated as being “out of step” (source: ALCU).  So as Gov. McDonnell took the reigns, he quietly chose to “streamline” the process of voting rights restoration.  The press release stated in part:

Highlighted by a 60-day turnaround period on all completed applications, compared to the previous standard of six months to one year or more, the process will be the fastest and fairest in recent Virginia history. The Governor also announced that he is shortening the time individuals convicted of non-violent felonies must wait before applying for their restoration of their rights; That period will be reduced from the current three years to two years.

Yet this change, small though significant  was done without fan-fair or the interaction of the General Assembly.  However, at the January 2013 State of the Commonwealth address, Gov. Bob McDonnell (formerly Gov. Vaginal Probe, but that is another topic) took a leap of faith for this little old-red state.  Governor McDonnell openly, and loudly, advocated for the restorations of voting rights to some of the Commonwealth’s felon citizenry automatically:

“As a nation that believes in redemption and second chances, we must provide a clear path for willing individuals to be productive members of society once they have served their sentences and paid their fines and restitution. It is time for Virginia to join most of the other states and make the restoration of civil rights an automatic process for non-violent offenders.”‎ — Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell

“I believe strongly, as a matter of conscience, in protecting the constitutional rights of our citizens.  And I believe that it is time for Virginia to join the overwhelming majority of states in eliminating our bureaucratic restoration process and creating a clear, predictable constitutional and statutory process.” — Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell

Currently, Virginia and Kentucky are the only remaining states that permanently strip felons of those rights. Here in the Commonwealth, voting restoration lies only in the purview of the governors office and his streamlined process(See: Secretary of the Commonwealth Restoration of Rights).  This methodology could still leave many citizens who have paid their debt to soceity, without their democratic rights to the election process, which is not only the right to vote — but to hold any public office — or even to serve on jury duty.  Again, a felony in Virginia could be as non-violent as failing to return leased property to a rental-furniture (predatory lending depending on how you feel) company.  Not violent, not murder, not selling drugs to kids — but having difficulties paying for the couch you rented.  How many of us have bounced a check?  Been 30, 60, 90+ days late on a bill?  Anyone out there ducking student loan payments?  What makes our debts different?  They aren’t codified as a felony (yet…give it time).

Gov. McDonnell to his credit has restored the voting rights of 4,400 felons, and was actually seeking to make it easier for that right to be restored despite this fight being traditionally seen as a Democratic one — over a Republican argument.  I see no benefit from the Governor’s advocacy, in fact I see it as a brave move for a quite conservative individual.  Yet despite his bravery, the Virginia General Assembly towed the traditional party lines.  Well…not even the GA its self.  A House SUBCOMMITTEE killed the bill.  They didn’t even let it hit the floor for discussion!   Why?  Well it seems as if the Republican delegates believe that that couch debtor I mentioned earlier should have to “work” for their rights.  Wait…I thought it was a RIGHT?  What?  As WJLA cited:

Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said most first-time, nonviolent felons “pay no debt to society at all” because they are just put on probation.  “These are folks who haven’t exhibited much personal responsibility in their lives at all,” Gilbert said in a speech on the House floor. He said requiring those citizens to petition for restoration of their rights is not too much to ask.

Hrm.  I have had the pleasure of meeting many felons.  I was a Magistrate Judge.  Let me let you in on something….most of them were perfectly nice people.  They made a wrong choice, they possibly paid for it (don’t forget those who are charged, might be guilty as sin, but not adjudicated as guilty…then guess what!  You aren’t a felon!), and now because they chose wrong — they have to “work” for their rights?  I’m not sure how I feel about stopping a reasonable alteration, to allow LIMITED felons to regain their rights automatically.  I’m not sure if I agree, well I know I don’t agree, with the idea that all felons are unworthy of voting rights restoration unless they “work” for it.  I know plenty of people who have committed crimes, they just weren’t caught — and they still get to vote.  Is that just a reward for doing bad, but doing it so well you don’t get hemmed up?

When do we decide that an individual has paid their debt to society?  Why do we allow people to go on probation, serve weekends, or serve their time straight — if we are going to continue to punish them after the exit the criminal justice system?  Are we, in some ways, setting up individuals to become a second class of citizens?  “Hey you!  Yeah you, with the overly priced rented couch you defaulted on!  NO voting for you!  To the back of the line!”   Does that seem right?  Just?  Appropriate in a society that holds our rights as a model for others?  What do you think?


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