Governor Terry McAuliffe issued an executive order recently restoring civil rights of voting, serving on a jury, running for office, or being a notary public for persons who had been convicted of any and all felonies in the past but who have completed the terms of incarceration and who have completed any period of supervised release of probation and parole. The restoration of civil rights after completing a sentence has been automatic in most states and routine in those that have had an application process. Virginia required an application before the Governor’s order, but the waiting list for acting on applications was notoriously long until Governor McAuliffe came into office. His executive order will cover more than 200,000 people.
Most including myself have applauded the Governor’s action. As he described it, “it’s the right thing to do.” Other have accused him of politics. Actually, I believe the laws in Virginia that denied the right to vote to people who had served their sentences were political, and what the Governor did was to take some of the politics out of registering to vote. A review of history will explain what I mean.
Denying civil rights to persons who had been convicted and served their sentences was part of an effort during the early part of the twentieth century to limit the electorate in the state to white men who supported the political establishment. Jim Crow laws that were primarily aimed at black people required voters to write on a blank sheet of paper information that was required in the state constitution and to answer any question posed by election officials. Additionally, in order to vote a person must have paid the capitation tax of $1.50 every year for three years in a row at least six months before the election. Denial of civil rights of those who had been in prison was just another attempt to disenfranchise more voters. The Constitution of 1902 that contained all the Jim Crow provisions was never ratified by a vote of the people as all previous and all since constitutions have been. It was simply declared to be in effect by the political establishment. These deliberate actions to keep black people from voting were so successful that by the end of 1902 there were only 21,000 of an estimated 147,000 blacks of voting age registered, and the imposition of the poll tax cut that number in half. Denial of voting rights to black people was notorious throughout the South, but no state was more successful at it than Virginia.
Many of us have worked hard in the legislature and in the courts to eliminate artificial barriers to voting. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was extremely important, but Congress repealed that law. Other techniques to limit voting by requiring specific identification, limiting hours of registration and voting, and restricting the use of absentee ballots are all modern day versions of what happened in the past.
I thank Governor McAuliffe for his courage in eliminating one more vestige of the politics of limiting voting. Now we need to work on the others.
The Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office provides a searchable database for individuals to check to see if their rights have been restored.
Ken Plum is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.