(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
It’s 4:00 pm, Friday, Oct. 12, one hour until the end of the last full week of voter registration in Virginia. If your voter registration application isn’t submitted to the board of elections by close of business on Monday, you won’t be able to vote this November.
Lukita James, 38, sits in the Henrico Public Library filling out an application much longer than a simple voter registration form. Her 5-year-old son sits quietly beside her, hands folded as Lillie Branch Kennedy and Cathy Woodson assist her with applying to restore her right to vote. James marks down “grand larceny” in the area that asks what felony she was convicted of, the crime that divorced her from her voting franchise.
Virginia is one of four states this year that permanently disenfranchises anyone with a felony conviction, a right only regained by appealing directly to the governor. James is one of 450,000 people disenfranchised under the felony statute, 350,000 of whom are not in jail but in society—242,000 of whom are African Americans.
The state’s felony disenfranchisement law was cultivated (though not born) during the turn of the 20th century, post-Reconstruction era when white lawmakers sought to limit, if not erase black political power after slavery was abolished. Millions of African Americans in Virginia over the past hundred years have been excluded from democracy as a result. The state now faces a massive collision between its Confederate history and its present racial realities, as civil rights advocates struggle to reconcile the two.
In May 2010, shortly after he took office, Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, agreed to streamline the felon rights restoration process. He committed his office to processing restoration applications within 60 days, as opposed to the months for which applications languished in limbo in previous administrations.
This won’t help Lukita James for November. Even if she placed her application directly in Gov. McDonnell’s hands by close of business, the earliest she might hear back would be two weeks later, well after the voter registration deadline. As the day winds to a close, she heads to the county court to request the information she needs to complete her application for restoration. Before she leaves she asks Kennedy for a voter registration form for her older son, who’s 19. She can’t cast a ballot this year, but he still has time.
A Break With the Past
McDonnell’s commitment to review voting rights restoration applications in a shorter time than past governors may seem trivial, but advocates in the Virginia Voter Restoration coalition call it a “victory.” It’s a larger concession than any garnered from previous governors, even Democrats. But they believe McDonnell can go farther, grantingautomatic rights restoration.
There is, in fact, litigation pending in the U.S. District Court that could lead to automatic restoration. In a lawsuit filed July 24 against McDonnell’s administration, former Richmond City Councilman Sa’ad El-Amin, 72, is arguing that the felony disenfranchisement law is unconstitutional. El-Amin, who was convicted of felony tax evasion in 2003 and served three years in prison, is hanging his own right to vote on his lawsuit, which he says shows that the disenfranchisement law is an offspring of early Black Codes laws rooted in white supremacist intentions. It’s somewhat of a long shot, but El-Amin is less faithful in the “piecemeal” route to automatic rights restoration through the governor.