Felon disenfranchisement is the issue that makes millions of people unable to vote. These are people who have “done their time”, so to speak, served their sentences, and should now be treated as any other citizen of the U.S. But the laws, which were enacted in the late 19th and early 20th century, began and will end as a racist practice.
This week, Governor Bob McDonnell announced an order significantly limiting felon disenfranchisement in our state, a state which has incidentally been one of the biggest culprits in the practice that disproportionately affected communities of color.
According to the New York Times, McDonnell’s order will allow for nonviolent offenders who have paid their dues to have their voting rights automatically restored. What once took a little luck and a whole lot of bureaucratic hurdling will now be automatic and will affect approximately 100,000 Virginians.
From state to state, felon disenfranchisement laws vary widely. In all, about 2.5% of the voting population is barred from taking part in the election processes. Since the late 1990s over 20 states have scaled back on the laws or made it easier for felons to regain those voting rights.
These laws were enacted as African Americans gained freedom from slavery and additional rights like the right to vote. Initially, some states even differentiated between “Negro crimes” and “white crimes” when determining what offenses would warrant the taking away of voting rights. In other words, state lawmakers at the time made no bones about who exactly they didn’t want voting. And in many states, the archaic laws have stood the test of time.
In three states—Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia—more than one-in-five African Americans had lost their right to vote as of 2010, according to the Sentencing Project. These were people who had already served their sentence. They had fulfilled their criminal penalties and were further being punished indefinitely by not having their votes counted in the country that is supposed to be a symbol of Democracy.
Governor McDonnell has taken a step in the right direction.
Details have yet to be worked out, but offenders who had their right to vote taken after a nonviolent crime will have those rights automatically restored after the conditions of their sentences are met and as long as they have no pending felony charges.