Felon Disenfranchisement in Virginia


Some welcome news:

Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell is on track to restore voting rights to more felons than either of his Democratic predecessors - a surprising development for a conservative Republican who served as a law-and-order attorney general. 

He has won praise from African Americans and civil rights groups for scrapping plans to require essays as part of felons' applications and vowing instead to act on each case within 60 days. His administration has approved 780 of 889 applicants - 88 percent, according to the Secretary of the Commonwealth of Virginia's Office, which handles the requests. 

"It was pretty darn fast," said James Bailey, regional director of the Hampton Roads Missing Voter Project, which encourages felons to apply for restored rights. "I give him props for sticking to what he said he was going to do."

I think Adam's reply is about right:

There are more than 300,000 people disenfranchised in Virginia as a result of these laws, which were originally instituted with the express intent of preventing black people from voting--or as one Virginia Delegate in the early 1900s, Carter Glass, put it, the voting restrictions proposed at the time "will eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this State." An Advancement Project report estimated that more than half of the disenfranchised in Virginia are black. 

Even though McDonnell's office seems to be handling the requests well, Virginia's policy of individual, discretionary clemency through the executive branch remains, along with Kentucky, 
the most restrictive in the country. McDonnell deserves credit for taking the matter seriously, but the law still needs to be changed.

The history of these laws, which Adam cites, is really important. In Virginia, and other states, felon disenfranchisement was not instituted in reaction to rising crime, but to buttress systemic white supremacy. This is not a holdover from the "War against drugs." It's a hold-over from Jim Crow.

Props to McDonnell for beginning the process of making this right. Again, you can make a strong argument that this is in McDonnell's "political interest." That's important. I believe these are the sorts of things--over time--that will allow a Republican to be competitive for black votes, without costing him many white votes. Moreover, it allows someone like Doug Wilder or Sheila Johnson to say they actually got something for their support.

But all of that aside, it's still the right thing. The Emancipation Proclamation was also politically smart. It does not follow that Lincoln, then, doesn't deserve credit.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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