After the 15th Amendment was passed, giving blacks the constitutional right to vote, Southern states enacted Jim Crow laws, designed to keep blacks from actually voting. These laws included disingenuous literacy tests and poll taxes, which served as illegal but thankfully temporary impediments for black voters. One of the few ways that states found they could legally keep at least some blacks from voting, however, was to enact felon disenfranchisement laws. These laws say that after a felon has served his time in prison, he still cannot vote. Although African-Americans represent only about 12.5% of America’s population, they make up about 48.5% of its prison population. So, felon disenfranchisement laws, which are at best arguably constitutional, have proved an effective method of suppressing the black vote.
Virginia is one of only two states in the U.S. that permanently bars ex-felons from voting, even after they have paid their debt to society (the other is Kentucky). In Virginia alone, there are more than 377,000 disenfranchised felons. Of these, more than 208,000 are African-American.This is an abomination. Virginia’s laws must be changed.
Some Virginia legislators recognize this but progress remains stagnant. The Virginia Senate recently approved a constitutional amendment that would allow non-violent ex-felons the right to vote. But in February, the Virginia House Privileges & Elections Committee effectively killing (for this year) the effort to restore voting rights to the disenfranchised.
This portion of the Virginia Constitution, which denies ex-felons the right to vote, is a shameful reminder that racism persists even today, because most ex-felons in Virginia are black. Once these residents have served their time, they should have their voting rights restored automatically. All free Virginians should have the right to vote. Our House of Delegates should know better than to keep Jim Crow laws on the books.
Aside from the legislature, other civic groups have taken steps to help ex-felons get their voting rights back. Under current Virginia law, most disenfranchised voters can petition the governor for restoration of rights, and civic groups have provided meaningful assistance during this process. Although petitioning has yielded restoration of voting rights to fewer than 10,000 ex-felons in the last eighteen years, it can mean the world to those people. In 2008, Gov. Tim Kaine restored the rights of 1,529 disenfranchised voters, a welcome development.
But such incremental progress is no substitute for meaningful legislation. The hope is that Virginia will follow the lead of Florida, which has recently made huge strides in restoring voting rights. Ideally, all citizens will get their voting rights restored upon finishing their prison sentences. Until that day comes, there is much work to do.
Rob Poggenklass is a student at William and Mary Law School