On Friday, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, flanked by veteran civil-rights leaders, announced what he called a “landmark” restoration of voting rights for convicted felons.
The policy will immediately restore the right to vote—as well as the right to run for public office, serve on a jury or become a notary public—to 206,000 Virginians who have served their time and completed their parole or probation, according to a press release.
Virginia was one of only three states, along with Iowa and Florida, that permanently stripped felons of their right to vote. Virginia did have a process that allowed felons to apply to have their rights restored, but it was an onerous one. According to the the Sentencing Project, Virginia was also one of three states, along with Florida and Kentucky, where 20 percent or more of black adults are disenfranchised. Jeremy Haile, federal advocacy counsel for the Sentencing Project, tells The Nation that Friday’s move “is the most significant restoration of voting rights that we have ever seen. We see it as a model for other states.”
“We have a horrible history here in Virginia,” McAuliffe told The Nation. “Today I announced this action on the steps of our capitol, where in 1901 and 1902 they put literacy tests, the poll tax and then disenfranchisement of felons into the state’s constitution. We were one of the worst states in the United States of America on this issue. So we got rid of over 100 years of sad history denying people the right to vote in the Commonwealth of Virginia.”
McAuliffe had already made some smaller moves to restore felons voting rights, reducing waiting times for violent felons to petition to have their rights restored, eliminating a requirement that individuals pay all of their court costs before they’re eligible and reclassifying everyone convicted on drug charges as non-violent felons. “We got 18,000 people back into the system,” says McAuliffe, “but as I got into the issue, I wondered why these people had to go through this process. These people have served their time, they’re done with their probation, they’re back with their families and their communities, they’re working—why do we put these barriers around the voting box and make them jump through a bunch of hoops? If we’re giving people back their rights, then let’s just go ahead and do it.”
The United States has around 5 percent of the world’s population but houses around 25 percent of its prisoners. According to The Sentencing Project, almost six million Americans are prohibited from voting because of felony disenfranchisement laws. That represents around one out of every 40 voting-age adults. Nationwide, 75 percent of them have served their time and are out of prison.