Restrictive laws in numerous states make it nearly impossible for felons to have their rights restored even years after completing their prison sentences.
By Frank Kineavy
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D). REUTERS
Nearly six million people will be barred from voting in elections this November due to having felony convictions on their records.
Heavyweights in the political world have weighed in on this topic, including former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who calls for voting rights to be reinstated immediately after someone serves their sentence.
In all but four states, felons are denied the right to vote but have this right restored after completing certain requirements, such as completing a prison term, probation, parole or all three. Virginia is among the states that permanently takes away the right to vote unless the governor makes a special order. Last month the state made headlines when Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe restored the right to vote to nearly 13,000 felons. He was continuing the pattern of previous Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, who during his term altered state policy to automatically restore voting rights to non-violent felons who had completed their sentences, and met certain other conditions.
However, the current Virginia state Republicans are making a last ditch effort to disenfranchise citizens with felony convictions. In April McAuliffe signed an executive order immediately reinstating the right to vote for nonviolent felons who completed their prison terms and met the requirements of their release — a total of about 206,000 people.
McAuliffe’s political counterparts vehemently challenged his move, accusing him of abusing his power by restoring rights to potential Democratic voters that would maintain Virginia’s status as a blue state in November. After taking McAuliffe to the highest court in the state, the Virginia GOP was able to overturn the governor’s decision. The court ruled that the Governor overstepped his authority.
“Never before have any of the prior 71 Virginia governors issued a clemency order of any kind — including pardons, reprieves, commutations, and restoration orders — to a class of unnamed felons without regard for the nature of the crimes or any other individual circumstances relevant to the request,” wrote Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons in the majority opinion.
“To be sure, no governor of this commonwealth, until now, has even suggested that such a power exists,” the justice wrote.
This led to McAuliffe’s recent announcement. In a two-page memo the governor explained that the Virginia Secretary of Commonwealth had individually reviewed the cases of about 13,000 people and that their voting rights had been restored.
“Today, the Governor is announcing next steps to proceed with individually restoring the rights of persons who have served their time and completed supervised release,” the memo states. “This process is fair and transparent and fully complies with the restrictions outlined in the July 22nd Supreme Court decision. These actions stem from Governor McAuliffe’s belief in the power of second chances and his determination that our Commonwealth will no longer treat these individuals like second class citizens.”
He is again being challenged by Virginia Republicans, causing many potential voters status to be in limbo.
“This cynical proposal unmasks Republican leaders’ true motive, which is to permanently disenfranchise men and women and condemn them to a lifetime as outcasts from our Commonwealth,” said McAuliffe. “While no one condones violent felonies, enlightened societies believe that all men and women are capable of redemption.”
Unfortunately, this is not just an isolated problem in Virginia. There are about 5.8 million people in the United States that will be unable to cast a vote in November due to a felony conviction on their record, according to the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice research and advocacy organization.
The issue is the amount of time it takes for these potential voters to complete this in many states. Two of the most historically socially progressive states, Maine and Vermont, allow prisoners to vote from jail, including people with felony convictions. But in the states of Virginia, Iowa, Florida and Kentucky, they can only regain their voting rights through the governor, which often proves to be a long process. In 2015, the Florida SunSentinel reported that this restriction keeps an estimated 1.6 million people — 9 percent of the state — from voting. At that time, the publication reported that Gov. Rick Scott had restored the right to only 1,534 nonviolent felons and that over 11,000 others who applied were still waiting on an answer.
Kentucky saw progress that was stopped as quickly as it began. Last November, outgoing Democratic Gov. Steven Beshear returned the right to vote for an estimated 140,000 nonviolent felons who had completed their sentences. However, Republican Matthew Belvin, his successor, reversed this order when he took office a month later.
Time will tell how the issue will play out in states like Virginia, which has a long history of efforts to disenfranchise minority voters through the criminal justice system. Decisions on this issue could impact elections for years to come.