Column: In Virginia, felon voting rights ensure democracy

Gov. Terry McAuliffe holds up the order he signed to restore rights to felons in Virginia at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Friday, April 22, 2016. More than 200,000 convicted felons will be able to cast ballots in the swing state of Virginia in November's election under a sweeping executive order by McAuliffe announced Friday that restores their rights to vote and run for office. (Mark Gormus /Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)

The Declaration of Independence decreed that every person has three inalienable rights: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Liberty is the foundation of American democracy.

A large part of that foundation is the right to vote; yet, across the country hundreds of thousands of people are not able to exercise this right. In many states, those who have been convicted of felonies and released from prison are not allowed to vote or face restrictions when trying to do so.

On Friday, April 22, Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia used his executive authority to pave a path for released felons to become enfranchised voters once again. Gov. McAuliffe deserves praise for his efforts to allow all people to have access to their most basic rights.

Felons have not had voting rights in Virginia since the period of Reconstruction following the Civil War. These laws were initially passed in order to keep African Americans from voting and were coupled together with laws that established poll taxes and poll tests. These laws have been repealed or overridden through executive orders in some states. Due to limited power of executive orders, many were overturned with the arrival of new governors.

This use of executive authority comes in the middle of Gov. McAuliffe’s term, allowing him to defend his decision, unlike past governors who have passed similar bills at the end of their terms, only to have them repealed by the new governor. This timing will also allow Virginia Democrats to garner enough support for future elections to hopefully pass a law to keep this expansion of voting rights in place. 

Virginia has been divided on party lines before and after Gov. McAuliffe’s decision. While Democrats are championing the expansion of voting rights, members of the state Republican party are actively voicing their opposition.

John Whitbeck, chairman of the state’s GOP condemned the governor for political pandering and for issuing “a blanket restoration, without regard to the nature of the crimes committed,” The GOP is arguing people accused of heinous crimes, such as rape and murder, should lose their voting rights permanently.

The Virginia GOP does not, obviously, place any faith in the state’s prison rehabilitation system. The sentence a person serves is supposed to reflect their crime and lead them to a new future outside of crime.

By continuing to take a felons rights after they have served their time, current laws keep these people from moving forward with their lives. After serving time, society expects felons to pay taxes and work like every other person. However, without this executive action, released felons would not have an essential right. 

Voting is an inalienable right granted to all people of voting age within this country. If felons are expected to return to being normal citizens, then the right to vote should be restored. If we suppress the vote for those who have paid their debt to society, then we are no better than many of the countries we criticize for being undemocratic. 

The idea that these felon-disenfranchisement laws were designed to keep murderers and rapists from using their votes to wield power and influence for dangerous purposes are unfounded. There is zero question that these laws were founded in order disenfranchise African Americans from voting in the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras. And in that respect, these laws were successful even after the end of Jim Crow. 

These laws have kept many from voting from a very young age, very often for non-violent crimes. As African Americans are the most imprisoned portion of the American population, these laws, with the help of the so-called War on Drugs, have effectively shut down the black vote. These laws were created by racists, plain and simple. Those who continue to defend them are just as racist as their creators.

It is 2016 and America is still dealing with the issue of voter disenfranchisement. It’s time for people to follow in Virginia’s footsteps and override these racist laws in order to bring about an age where all those who deserve to vote can do so.


Amar Batra is a contributor to the Daily Campus opinion section, and is also a staff photographer. He can be reached via email at amar.batra@uconn.edu. He tweets at @amar_batra19.