Kent Willis | Remembering Jack Kemp for another passion: Voter-restoration reform in Virginia

Much has been written about Jack Kemp since his passing a couple of weeks ago. Kemp was a former football star turned congressman who served as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under the first President Bush and was the 1996 Republican vice-presidential nominee. He was a pragmatist who became well known for reaching across party lines to get things done and, in particular, for his passionate efforts to include more people of color in the Republican Party.

But Mr. Kemp had a less well-publicized passion that occupied much of his time in recent years – restoration of voting rights for formerly incarcerated persons – and I had the honor of working with him, albeit all too briefly, on this issue here in Virginia.

I first met Mr. Kemp, via telephone, while he was on vacation a couple of years ago. He had agreed to take part of his day to discuss voter disfranchisement in Virginia with a handful of advocates.

While we were prepared to educate Mr. Kemp on the issue in Virginia, it became clear at the beginning of the conversation that he was no novice to the subject. He was well aware that Virginia was one of only two states in the nation – Kentucky is the other – that permanently disfranchises every person convicted of a felony, requiring an order of the governor to regain the right to vote.

He knew that as many as 300,000 people in Virginia who had completed their sentences and returned to their communities were unable to vote because of Virginia’s antiquated law. He also knew that the Virginia law was a product of the Jim Crow era, and that, along with poll taxes and literacy tests, its purpose was to make it more difficult for African-Americans to vote.

And, he knew perhaps the most important thing for any pragmatist – that voter restoration works. According to studies, formerly incarcerated persons who vote are far less likely to commit another crime and return to prison. Participating in our democracy as a voter, it seems, is a valuable part of the rehabilitation process and contributes to public safety.

Although Kemp was a politician, there were no politics behind his forceful support for restoration of voting rights. He simply believed restoring voting rights was the fair thing to do for the individual and that the results benefitted everyone.

Mr. Kemp first spoke out on the issue several years ago when testifying at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the re-authorization of the Voting Rights Act. When asked by a member of Congress if he supported the right to vote for formerly incarcerated persons, he unhesitatingly responded “yes,” saying “voting in America is the quintessential part of our democracy.”

After he made that statement, voting rights advocates reached out to Kemp to involve him in felon enfranchisement work throughout the country, and he became an important partner in the fight to expand the right to vote to all Americans.

Inspired by his work with prison ministries and because the issue, in his words, “is a matter of simple fairness,” he supported legislation to require automatic restoration of voting rights for persons participating in federal elections, urging Congress to take action on what he deemed a “historic civil rights reform.”

By the time we were following Mr. Kemp’s advice on how to bring about voter restoration reform in Virginia, he had already helped immeasurably in Florida and Maryland, which significantly updated and expanded their voter restoration procedures in recent years. He had also worked for reform in Kentucky, Virginia’s voter disfranchisement twin.

In the future, when Virginia has finally shed itself of this shameful and counterproductive law, I believe we will look back over the last 12 months as the time in which Virginia finally started in earnest on the path to voter restoration reform.

Last summer, for example, Gov. Kaine promised to expedite the process for restoration of rights so that disfranchised persons could vote in the November elections. The 2,535 individuals who managed to have their rights restored in 2008 are a drop in the bucket of 300,000 disfranchised voters, but the number is a record for one year, exceeding the totals of most Virginia governors during their entire four-year tenure.

In the General Assembly this year, there was, finally, a concerted effort to reform the restoration process. Eight bills were introduced, more than ever before. One measure easily passed the Senate, while its companion in the House was barely killed when a committee blocked it from a floor vote by a narrow 12-10 margin.

A few weeks ago, at a forum in Richmond, all three Democratic Party gubernatorial hopefuls said they supported automatic restoration of rights for most felons after they complete their sentences. This is remarkable not only because of the uniformity of thought on this issue, but the mere fact that it is a campaign issue. In the recent past, I cannot recall this subject even surfacing in a statewide political campaign.

Unfortunately, our work with Mr. Kemp in Virginia was cut short by his untimely passing. I only hope that we will honor Mr. Kemp’s memory by moving forward on voter restoration reform, as he wanted us to do.

I think it is best to end this piece with Mr. Kemp’s own words:

For a nation that depends on the participation of its citizens, it is fundamentally un-American to deny the vote to people who are living and working as law-abiding citizens…The continuing expansion of the franchise – to the poor, women, minorities and young people – is one of the greatest stories in our country’s history.

 

Kent Willis is the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union-Virginia.


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