On April 22, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe announced that he would use his executive clemency to extend the right to vote to about 200 000 ex-felons, all of whom have served their time and are no longer on parole or probation. When he campaigned for the Governor’s seat in 2014 on a platform that included restored voting rights for ex- felons, he said that he considered disenfranchisement “a remnant of the poll tax”, referring to the racial charge of the rule. The order also restores some other rights to ex- felons, including the right to run for office and to serve on juries.
Republican leaders in the Virginia General Assembly have protested against this move by the Governor, announcing that they’re looking into legal options to challenge it. So far, though, the backlash has mostly concerned Gov. McAuliffe’s authority to issue a blanket order like this, not the content of the order itself.
Before this executive action, Virginia had some of the harshest provisions in the country – along with Kentucky, Florida and Iowa – with ex-felons being barred from voting for life. On the other end of that scale are Maine and Vermont, where there are no voting restrictions and prisoners can vote by absentee ballot while in jail. Thirteen states allow felons to vote as soon as they are released from prison, even if they are still on parole or probation. The new Virginia policy, with continued disenfranchisement of parolees and probationers, would remain on the less generous side of the spectrum.
The old Virginia policy goes back to the Jim Crow era. It was instituted at the 1902 State Constitutional Convention, along with literacy tests and poll taxes. The charter was explicitly created to destroy the emerging black political power in the Old Dominion. Most of its provisions were eliminated through federal Civil Rights legislation and court action in the 1960’s, but voter disenfranchisement slipped through the cracks and outlived them all.
Today, the racial disparities remain. In Virginia, the Sentencing Project estimates that 1 in 5 African-Americans are disenfranchised. On the national level, this number is 1 in 13, compared to 1 in 55 for the non-black population. This is a consequence of the greater problem of a racially discriminatory justice system, which routinely punishes African- Americans at higher rates and more severely than whites. Disenfranchisement just exacerbates this problem by extending some parts of a prison sentence to last a lifetime and limiting the ability of those affected to be a political force.
Politically, this is a very interesting development since Virginia has in recent years become a swing state. It’s gone for Republicans in presidential races since the election of Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952, with the exception of Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, but Barack Obama managed to flip the state in 2008, and won it again in 2012. Currently, both the State Senators are Democrats, while eight out of the eleven House Representatives are Republicans. This means that Virginia is a vital state come the general presidential election, and whichever way it goes, it is likely to be won by small margins.
If the newly enfranchised ex-felons all registered to vote (which is, admittedly, doubtful), they would make up about 4 percent of the Virginia electorate. If they formed a single voter bloc, that’s a big enough group to determine most races in the state. Most recent elections, including McAuliffe’s own, have been determined by margins smaller than the number of people now enfranchised.
President Barack Obama became the first sitting President to visit a federal prison in 2015, at El Reno Correctional Facility in Oklahoma. Source: Flickr.
Here’s the kicker, though. Over half of the disenfranchised felons in Virginia are black, a much higher percentage than they make up of the electorate in the state at large. And African-Americans are the most consistent voter bloc there is, voting for the Democrat at rates of between 93-99% in the past four presidential elections. In a state that already leans Democratic by affiliation, this could be the factor that solidifies the Obama victories and turns the Old Dominion into a blue state.
This is why McAuliffe has been accused of playing politics under the guise of benevolence. Probable Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is a longtime friend of his, and this infusion of voters could very well be the thing that secures her victory in the state. On a larger scale, McAuliffe could possibly have secured the future of the Democratic Party in Virginia for a generation. But the typically low turnout of ex-felons could also severely limit the effect of the executive order on election results. McAuliffe may or may not have had ulterior motives in mind as he made this decision, but that doesn’t mean that correcting this historic injustice wasn’t the right thing to do.