Something which is underreproted and underappreciated is the extent to which minorities are still unfairly denied the franchise. In Virginia, approximately one quarter of African-American men are unable to vote because they are felons.
Data from the Sentencing Project say that more than 200,000 African-Americans in Virginia are felons. The total population of African-Americans in the state according to 2000 census data was about 1.4 million. Assuming 1.2 million adults (allow for some population growth in the past eight years) and 600K men, with 150K of the felons being men, and you get the 1/4 number.
The really crazy thing is that, according to the Sentencing Project,
more than two thirds 55% of the convicted felons in Virginia are African American. Given their share of the population, that means an African-American is seven 4.5 times more likely to be disenfranchised in Virginia than a White person.
This is horrifying but perhaps not terribly surprising in a state that effectively denied all African-Americans the franchise until 1965 through poll taxes and "literacy" tests.
Virginia has one of the strictest laws in the country when it comes to giving felons back their rights to vote. All types of felons automatically lose their right to vote for the remainder of their lives. While its possible to reapply after a certain number of years have passed since the end of one's sentence, the state governor has complete and arbitrary say over whether to grant requests. If the felony was for either drug distribution or for a violent offense, the process is so arduous that virtually no one would actually go through with it.
Unfortunately, the disenfranchisement law comes not from statutory authority but from the state consitution. To overturn the disenfranchisement clause would require a state ballot measure that must first be approved by both houses of the state legislature in two consecutive legislative sessions seperated by a general election.
While the Senate occasionally passes a law calling for a ballot measure, the House, which has a larger Republican majority, won't let such bills leave committee. Even if a ballot measure were passed, it would be rough going in this state since felons are an easy group to demonize.
The other avenue for reform, having the federal courts strike down the state constitution's clause on Fourteenth Amendment grounds, is not really going anywhere. The jurisprudence on this issue appears to be that a law has to have both discriminatory intent and discriminatory effect. While the discriminatory effects seem undeniable, the current conservative Circuit Court, and Supreme Court, are unlikely to find in favor of striking down this provision on intent grounds.
But that makes the situation no less a travesty of justice. I've been canvassing for Senator Obama in Virginia and several other states. I've often been responded to sharply by felons who hate to be reminded that they are locked out of the system. The law in Virginia not only disenfranchises a quarter of African-American men, it also alienates a lot of the community from being involved in politics. Wives, sisters, children, friends and family all can be discouraged when they see thier husbands, brothers and fathers unable to vote. To some, this is no doubt part of the upside.
I try to wrap my head around why someone could consider this situation acceptable. People argue that felons violated a social contract and therefore sacrificed their right to vote. That argument is a pile of horse doo-doo though. Virginia has one of the worst-funded indigent defense systems in the country which means poor people get railroaded with felonies where people who can afford lawyers are able to plead cases down to misdemeanors for the same crimes. Common crimes like destruction of property and assault are the kinds of crimes that can fall on either side of the misdemeanor / felony line.
Moreover, why should we throw people out of participation in the body politic after they have served their sentence? Society should do everything it can to give those who once committed and paid for their crimes a stake in the system. Many states, like Vermont, realize this and even give incarcerated citizens the right to vote. Virginia is essentially the most retrograde state in the country on this issue, and really is alone among mature democracies in the world if Wikipedia's survey (linked above) is to be believed.
We live in a country where somoene can snort cocaine and then become President, where we might get a first lady who stole prescription drugs from a charity to feed her own addiction, yet where a poor guy who smokes a crack pipe or does a few hundred dollars of property damage can lose his civil rights forever. Its crazy.