In a Major Step Towards Political Revolution, Some Felons Are Getting Voting Rights Reinstated
It has been a watershed several months for criminal justice reform. With much, much more to be done to offset the detrimental repercussions of political initiatives like the war on drugs, a few but altogether mighty moments have contributed to a deep-seated sense of impending change. In 2015, President Obama made a landmark decision when he opted to commute the sentences for thousands of low-level drug offenders and in January of 2016, he outlawed the use of solitary confinement in federal juvenile detention centers. There are also changes being made at the state level, with equally progressive effects. Virginia’s governor, the Democratic Terry McAuliffe has reinstituted voting rights for 200,000 of the state’s convicted felons, effectively undoing a law that’s been on the books for centuries. The implications are enormous: as the majority of convicted Americans are people of color, many of the millions with convictions on their records are essentially erased from the democratic process. With their silences voiced, the already disenfranchised cannot participate in electing the leaders of this nation, which is something many politicians have relied on to win campaigns, particularly in swing states like Virginia. What makes McAuliffe’s decision particularly potent right now is, of course, the forthcoming presidential election in November, where the votes of African Americans in Virginia could very well determine which candidate carries the state. This is a major step towards a new form of political self-determination in this country.
According to the New York Times, today’s news is a result of “intensifying national attention over harsh sentencing policies that have disproportionately affected African-Americans,” a point which McAuliffe himself addressed. “There’s no question that we’ve had a horrible history in voting rights as relates to African-Americans — we should remedy it,” he said. Not everyone is pleased at the Governor’s decision, and Virginia Republicans have been quoted as calling his actions “political opportunism” and “a transparent effort to win votes.” One would be hard-pressed not to call the mass incarceration of Black Americans a transparent effort to suppress votes, and the current political climate seems to suggest that the notion of preventing convicted felons from voting upon their release is an outdated and even disgraceful concept. What has many conservatives most worried may be the fact that “Mr. McAuliffe’s decision would have lasting consequences because it will remain in effect at least until January 2018, when the governor leaves office.”
With just around six months left until what will likely be one of the most memorable elections in modern American history, there isn’t much time for the new Virginia law to wield considerable influence on the outcome of the election. Not yet, at least. As with most bold political moves, this one will likely prove to be the first of many in a domino effect across the States except for Maine and Vermont, where already there are no voting restrictions placed on felons. And, as the Times reports, it’s possible McAuliffe’s act is actually not bold enough. “[A]lmost half of all states already had less restrictive policies than the one announced by Mr. McAuliffe, allowing felons to vote after their prison terms are completed even while they remain on parole or probation,” says the report.
The question is, should people convicted of crimes like rape and murder be allowed to vote?