Felon rights restoration is the right thing to do
IN THE 1964 LANDMARK decision Wesberry v. Sanders, the U.S. Supreme Court stated that “[n]o right is more precious in a free country than that of having a voice in the election of those who make the laws under which, as good citizens, we must live. Other rights, even the most basic, are illusory if the right to vote is undermined.”
Sadly, many state and local governments responded to this assessment by continuing their sordid history of blocking access to the ballot box. To ensure that American citizens were not stripped of this precious constitutional right, Congress passed and President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Unfortunately, the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder struck down a key enforcement provision in the Voting Rights Act, and since then, there has been a national effort to make it harder for Americans to vote.
In the aftermath of Shelby, I joined with a bipartisan group of members of Congress to draft legislation to amend the Voting Rights Act to address the court’s concerns. Despite our efforts, the leadership in the House of Representatives has refused to even allow a hearing on our bill.
And in the three years since the Shelby decision, states have enacted reactionary laws that make it more difficult for persons of color, low-income individuals, and seniors to vote. Thankfully, federal courts across the country are striking down many of the tools that hinder access to the polls. In fact, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals exposed the purpose of North Carolina’s voter suppression law when it found that the law “target[ed] African Americans with almost surgical precision … and, in fact, impose[d] cures for problems that did not exist.”
In Virginia, our state constitution still includes a provision that was intended to dilute the influence of African American voters: the permanent disenfranchisement of those with felony records. The commonwealth is one of only four states that still permanently disenfranchises felons. These individuals have served their time and paid their debt to society for their crimes, but they are barred from participating in our democracy unless they petition the governor to restore their basic right to vote.
The history behind this provision of Virginia law is striking and appalling in its intention and effect. Virginia state Sen. Carter Glass, who also served as a delegate at the 1902 Virginia Constitutional Convention, stated that this provision of our constitution was specifically intended to “eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this State in less than five years, so that in no single county of the Commonwealth will there be the least concern felt for the complete supremacy of the white race in the affairs of government.” Today, the law prevents more than one in five African American Virginians from voting.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe undertook an historic effort to dismantle this remnant of Jim Crow in Virginia by signing an executive order restoring voting rights to over 200,000 Virginians. Unfortunately, this action was overturned by the Virginia Supreme Court, which ruled that the restoration of rights could only be done individually, not all at once. Despite this setback, McAuliffe has worked diligently to comply with the court’s decision by restoring the voting rights of 13,000 persons on a case-by-case basis.
In doing so, Virginia joined 24 states, more than 100 localities, and companies like Home Depot, Target, Starbucks, and institutions like Johns Hopkins University. In Congress, I have joined a group of bipartisan members in introducing the Fair Chance Act, which would give those with criminal records a fair chance at federal employment. The governor and I understand what several studies have confirmed, that the restoration of voting rights and sustained employment of formerly incarcerated persons reduce recidivism and strengthen public safety.
Virginians should applaud the governor’s efforts, as well as his predecessors from both parties on this issue. Our state is long overdue in taking this reasonable step. We should conform our laws to the laws of 46 other states and restore the civil rights to those who have paid their debt to society. It is time for leaders in the Virginia General Assembly to immediately work to remove this abhorrent provision from our commonwealth’s constitution.
Bobby Scott represents Virginia’s 3rd District in the U.S. House of Representatives.