California and Virginia Move to Restore Voting Rights

By Marissa Liebling September 1, 2016
Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe (Photo by Kate Wellington/CC 2.0)
Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe (Photo by Kate Wellington/CC 2.0)

Depriving the right to vote based on a criminal conviction is a serious issue in this country. Three states permanently deprive people with a previous felony conviction of their vote unless they go through an application process to restore voting rights. (This is why this area of work is sometimes called “rights restoration.”) It doesn’t matter how long ago the criminal act took place. It doesn’t matter if the conviction related to, say, drug possession, and the would-be voter has since overcome the addiction. These laws serve to put up unfair and unnecessary barriers, punishing those who have served their time, paid their debt, and rejoined their communities.

Virginia is one of the three remaining states that permanently disenfranchises anyone ever convicted of a felony. And this is the subject of a tug of war between Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe and rights restoration opponents. In April, Governor McAuliffe issued a blanket clemency order that would have restored voting rights to 200,000 ex-offenders who had fully completed their sentence. Republicans legislators brought a legal challenge, resulting in the state Supreme Court finding the governor’s actions overstepped his authority in July.

In response, the governor announced last week that he individually granted clemency orders to 13,000 ex-offenders, and was working to complete far more. But just yesterday, the Republicans announced plans to take the governor back to court on these latest orders.

It’s worth nothing that, just this year, Virginia lawmakers again proposed several rights restoration constitutional amendments. As usual, these efforts stalled. Now lawmakers are going after the more modest attempt to address this serious problem.

The economic and racial disparities in the criminal justice system are well known. (For example, black Americans represent 12 percent of the total population of drug users, but 38 percent of those arrested for drug offenses, and 59 percent of those in state prison for a drug offense). These disparities make felony disenfranchisement laws all the more unjust and unacceptable.

On the other side of the country, a promising rights restoration is moving forward. Californians are ineligible to vote while in prison or on parole for a felony conviction. A 2011 sentencing reform bill created new categories of “post-release supervision,” which led to confusion over what constitutes “parole.” A court stepped in and granted voting rights to those assigned the new types of post-release supervision.

A new bill, AB 2466, codifies this right and clarifies that a term in county jail shall not result in a loss of voting rights. The bill has made it all the way to the Governor Brown’s desk. Project Vote is pleased to support this bill through testimony and a letter to the governor.

We hope that the rights restoration efforts in California and Virginia are successful. And we hope for more reform efforts to come. Civic participation can play an important role in making people feel included in their communities and more likely to respect the law. It may be no coincidence that there are higher repeat offense rates in states that permanently disenfranchise its citizens.

And, most importantly, Americans who have served their time and now live and work in our communities simply deserve a voice in our political process.