Our fledgling chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union at the W&M School of Law has undertaken a project to restore voting rights to disenfranchised felons. I had planned on writing a lengthy post on this because of my involvement in it, but a fellow law student has already done a spectacular job. Please, please read this post to find out more.
Here's a brief summary. After the 15th Amendment was passed, giving blacks the constitutional right to vote, Southern states enacted Jim Crow laws, designed to keep blacks from actually voting. One of the few ways that states found they could legally keep blacks from voting was if they enacted felon disenfranchisement laws. These laws say that after a felon has served his time in prison, he still cannot vote. Although African-Americans represent only about 12.5% of America's population, they make up about 48.5% of its prison population. So, felon disenfranchisement laws, which are at best arguably constitutional, have proved an effective method of suppressing the black vote.
Today in Virginia, which is one of just two states (Kentucky is the other) that disenfranchises almost all felons for life, there are more than 377,000 disenfranchised felons. Of these, more than 208,000 are African-American. This is an abomination. Virginia's laws must be changed.
Our project aims to help disenfranchised voters get their rights restored. This is a two-fold process. First, we're going to do what we can to help people under the current Virginia laws, which allow most disenfranchised voters to petition the governor. Second, we advocate passage of legislation that will bring Virginia into line with the 48 states that do not disenfranchise felons for life. Our hope is that Virginia will follow the lead of Florida, which has recently made huge strides in restoring voting rights.
Ideally, all citizens will get their voting rights restored upon finishing their prison sentences. Until that day comes, there is much work for us to do.
UPDATE: The Richmond Times-Dispatch published this article about felony disenfranchisement today, noting Virginia's progress under its last two Democratic governors. The story also mentions one unfortunate but true statistic: according to the Sentencing Project, roughly 5 million voters nationwide will not be able to vote in this year's presidential election, because of felony disenfranchisement laws.
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