ACLU urges McDonnell to act on restoration of voting rights for ex-felons
The ACLU of Virginia on Monday sent a letter to Gov. Bob McDonnell urging him to issue an executive order restoring the voting rights of Virginians with felony convictions. The civil liberties group has recently praised the Governor for showing support for legislation that would automatically restore civil rights for nonviolent offenders, and becoming an advocate for rights restoration reform.
“Governor McDonnell has the authority, through executive order, to restore the voting rights to all, or some, of the more than 450,000 individuals who are currently barred from exercising their right to vote in Virginia due to a felony conviction,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Claire G. Gastañaga. “We urge him to take such action to quickly provide offenders the opportunity to participate again in our democracy.”
“As we commemorate the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. today, we remember the rights for which this civil rights hero fought so hard: equality under the law for all, regardless of race,” added Gastañaga. “It’s time for Virginia to reform the felony disenfranchisement law and shed us of this final vestige of the Jim Crow era, which continues to disproportionately impact people of color leaving one in five African-American adults disenfranchised.”
According to the Sentencing Project, over 450,000 individuals – about 7.3% of the population – are barred from exercising their right to vote in Virginia due to a felony conviction. The vast majority of disenfranchised persons in Virginia and the U.S. are no longer incarcerated and are tax-paying citizens with jobs and families who are involved in their communities. At least two-thirds have fully completed their sentences, including probation and parole. Moreover, as the number and kinds of offenses that are felonies in Virginia have proliferated, the link between offense and disenfranchisement has become less and less rational and more attenuated.
“The legislature, thus far, seems unwilling to move Virginia ahead,” said Gastañaga. “The Governor cannot and should not wait for legislators to take action. Even if they chose to act, at best, it would still take two years to institute reform.”
Under the Virginia Constitution, the governor, not the General Assembly, has control over the process for restoring voting rights of felons. Only the General Assembly has the power to put a Constitutional amendment to change this before the people for a vote. A constitutional amendment requires approval by two separate legislative sessions (with a House of Delegates election in between) before it can be put to a referendum by Virginia voters. If the legislature approves the change this year (2013) and in 2014, the amendment can be voted on in November 2014. If the legislature doesn’t act this year, the earliest the amendment could be put to a vote would be November 2016.
The ACLU of Virginia, along with scores of ministers, faith-based groups, the NAACP and numerous other state and local organizations have pressed for reform of Virginia’s felon disenfranchisement law for years. In most states, the right to vote is automatically restored once felons, especially non-violent felons, have completed the terms of their sentences. All felons in Virginia are banned from voting (and running for office) for life unless the governor restores their rights. No state is considered worse than Virginia, and only three others – Kentucky, Iowa and Florida – have laws that are as punitive.