While partisans of a particular political party, which shall go unnamed, works itself into a righteous wrath over Voter Identification laws that supposedly threaten to bring back the Jim Crow era, they have been less vocal about the very tangible disenfranchisement of African-Americans created by the denial of voting rights to people with felony convictions. Perhaps it’s too embarrassing to bring up the issue because it was that very same party, in its pre-Civil Rights incarnation as the party of Southern segregation, that enacted those laws in the first place.
But consider: Of Virginia’s 6.4 million citizens of voting-age population, 450,000 have been disenfranchised by their felony status. The laws disproportionately affect black citizens. In 2010, 20% of the state’s voting-age African-American population could not vote as a result of a felony conviction, according to Helen A. Gibson, a University of Virginia civil rights historian, writing in the current edition of The Virginia News Letter.
In “Felons and the Right to Vote in Virginia: a Historical Overview,” Gibson walks through the history of what she calls “felon disenfranchisement” in Virginia in ante-bellum Virginia, the Jim Crow era and the Civil Rights era. “Despite recent steps toward reform,” she writes, “Virginia continues to struggle with its legacy of one of the highest disenfranchisement rates in the country.”
But the state has made progress in recent years. Former Governor Mark Warner streamlined the application for non-violent offenders to get their voting rights restored, reducing the period they had to wait before petitioning to get their rights restored. Former Governor Bob McDonnell issued an executive order making 350,000 Virginians convicted of non-violent felonies eligible to have their voting rights restored without the three-year waiting period. Most recently, Governor Terry McAuliffe has reduced the waiting time for restoring voting rights to those convicted of violent felonies and petitioned to have drug offenses removed from violent felonies. (Seventy-two percent of Virginians incarcerated for drug offenses are African-American.) The administrative systems for restoring voting rights has not kept pace with these gubernatorial actions, so voting-right restoration lags.
Here’s what I’d like to know: How many people have been unable to vote in Virginia due to Voter ID disenfranchisement compared to how many have been unable to vote compared to felony disenfranchisement? Maybe two or three hundred compared to two or three hundred thousand? Would it be asking too much to have the rhetoric of outrage directed at the source of greatest injustice?