The Virginia Supreme Court delivered a big victory for voting rights on Thursday when it denied Republican legislators’ petition to hold Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe in contempt over his plan to restore the voting rights of roughly 206,000 people with felony convictions who have fully served their sentences. In July, the court had previously blocked a sweeping executive order McAuliffe issued in April to restore these citizens’ voting rights, finding that he lacked the authority to do so in such a broad manner. The governor responded by signing thousands of individual orders to comply with the letter of the law, but Republican legislators tried to fight this plan, too. Fortunately, they’ve failed.
Virginia is one of just four states, along with Florida, Iowa, and Kentucky, that effectively disenfranchises most people with felony convictions for life, even after they finish parole or probation. Many other countries don’t prevent those with felony convictions from voting, a practice that largely came about in America to further white supremacy. Indeed, Virginia passed its current system during the Jim Crow era explicitly as a way to prevent African Americans from voting, and Southern states in general have some of the most burdensome restrictions on voting.
The Sentencing Project has found that roughly six million otherwise eligible Americans are unable to vote, including one in 13 African Americans. Virginia in particular disenfranchises 7 percent of all citizens and an outrageous 20 percent of African Americans. Black Virginians are five times more likely than whites to be barred from voting. These laws likely benefit the party more white voters favor, which of course could help swing a close statewide election to Republicans.
Republicans argued that McAuliffe shouldn’t restore voting rights to those who’ve committed violent crimes. However, one study found that 80 percent of those McAuliffe sought to re-enfranchise had committed nonviolent felonies. And due to the lifetime nature of the ban, most of those affected have been out of prison for over 10 years. Thanks to the racially discriminatory nature of disenfranchisement, nearly half of these formerly incarcerated citizens are black, even though African Americans are only one-fifth of Virginia’s population.
Republicans are shamefully fighting so hard against softening these Jim Crow laws for partisan gain, but fortunately McAuliffe can now proceed with restoring one of the most fundamental rights to thousands of Virginians.