Column by Judith Browne Dianis and Lillie Branch-Kennedy
Virginia hit the polls last week to elect a new governor, helping to define the Commonwealth’s future around jobs, education, healthcare and the environment. This act, of participating in our democracy, was a powerful one. Voting is the one time when we are all equal, as every citizen – whether rich or poor, young or old, and regardless of race – has the same say when they walk into the voting booth. It is your right as a citizen, and it matters.
Unfortunately, while most people in the Commonwealth are able to exercise this fundamental civil right, more than 6 percent of voting-age Virginians cannot due to a prior felony conviction. Even with Gov. McDonnell’s historic action this year to automatically restore voting rights for people with non-violent convictions, more than 370,000 Virginians – people who have completed their sentences, rejoined our communities and rebuilt their lives – remain shut out of our democracy. They should no longer be stripped of their voice.
We commend Gov. McDonnell for loosening the Commonwealth’s grip on its felony disenfranchisement law. But we need to do more. We hope that Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe will build on that progress by establishing a truly automatic restoration process for all Virginia citizens who have lost those voting rights due to a felony conviction.
One issue that we hope the new governor will address is Virginia’s distinction between different types of offenses in the automatic rights restoration process. This is an arbitrary discrepancy that serves no valid public policy purpose, as the reasons for restoring rights – second chances, community integration and our core democratic values, among others – remain the same for everyone, regardless of conviction. This is why we support automatic restoration for everyone who has completed their sentences. If a person has served their time, they shouldn’t have the additional punishment of having their right to vote stripped away. If we are a society that truly believes in second chances and redemption, then we must acknowledge that everyone is capable of being redeemed.
The majority of states agree with this position, as most do not make distinctions between violent and non-violent offenses. But even under among the states that do, Virginia continues to be an outlier with a more expansive list of violent offenses that prohibit automatic rights restoration than nearly all of them. With breaking and entering, as well as most drug offenses, categorized as “violent” crimes, Virginia is more restrictive on this issue than even Alabama and Mississippi. We hope the next governor will significantly reduce this list in order for automatic rights restoration to reach the greatest number possible of impacted people.
As community-based advocates have fanned out across the Commonwealth to identify people who are eligible for the automatic rights restoration process, another recurring issue has been a major barrier to assisting more people: ineligibility due to outstanding financial debts. Under current policy, in order to have voting rights reinstated an individual must have paid all court-imposed costs and fines. The issue of these outstanding costs – which in some cases can ratchet up to tens of thousands of dollars, earning interest over the years while a person is incarcerated – is an immensely prohibitive factor for people with prior felony convictions who wish to vote.
Addressing the barrier of criminal debt would vastly improve and expand the rights restoration process. We are not suggesting that a person’s debt should be eliminated – we’re saying that civil rights shouldn’t be held as collateral for payment. We don’t withhold a person’s right to religious freedom or freedom of speech until they have paid off court-ordered costs, and we shouldn’t withhold the right to vote either.
And while all of these steps would be major improvements to current policy, we still need a permanent solution. Ultimately, a constitutional amendment from the General Assembly is the best and most efficient way to ensure automatic rights restoration for all. For the hundreds of thousands of Virginia citizens who remain disenfranchised under Commonwealth law, we call on Gov.-elect McAuliffe to push for this final step. It’s not only the right thing to do – it’s smart government too. Restoring voting rights sends the message that citizens who want a second chance are welcome as full members of our communities. This helps to reintegrate people back into society and prevent future crimes.
In the wake of Election Day, we are glad that Virginia citizens once again exercised their right to vote. We urge the winning candidate, who will determine the Commonwealth’s future course, to consider the rights of those who continue to be silenced.
Judith Browne Dianis is the co-director of Advancement Project, a civil rights organization dedicated to issues of democracy and race. Lillie Branch-Kennedy is the executive director of Resource Information Help for the Disadvantaged (RIHD) and moderator of the Mobile Justice Tour, a Virginia initiative to raise awareness on prisoner re-entry issues.