Gov. Terry McAuliffe has been criticized for his recent decision to restore voting rights to convicted felons who have completed their obligations with regard to their sentence. His act has been decried as being politically motivated. I would point out that the decision not to restore voting rights to such individuals also was politically motivated and in particular was aimed at depressing the African-American vote.
For many years, Virginia was one of only four states that permanently disenfranchised former offenders. It was only through a laborious process that such a person could petition to have their rights restored and there was no provision for appeal, should the request be denied. Governor McDonnell in 2013, by a letter to the then Secretary of the Commonwealth, began to automatically restore the voting rights of nonviolent offenders after completion of their sentences, including probation and parole, and payment of fines and restitution.
With that action, Virginia remained one of eight states that continued to permanently disenfranchise some offenders. Obviously, that leaves 39 states and the District of Columbia that do not disenfranchise individuals who have been convicted of a felony. In two states, Vermont and Maine, eligibility to vote is not impacted by a felony conviction at all.
I believe our hope should be that a person can build a productive and beneficial lifestyle once they have been punished for their transgression. Surely, offering the possibility to participate in civic life by voting should be a part of our effort to reintegrate someone into society. Gov. McAuliffe’s action will benefit many new African-American voters, just as previous restrictions had a disproportionately negative impact on people of color. While both may be politically motivated, one thing is certain. Beyond the politics of it all, the former bends the arc of the moral universe towards justice, while the latter does not. Thanks to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for that last statement.