With a stroke of his pen on Friday, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe restored voting rights to over 200,000 convicted felons. The executive order allows full democratic participation for those who have completed their incarceration and any supervised probation or parole.
The public statement accompanying McAuliffe’s order directly addressed the invidious nature of laws denying voting rights to those convicted of crimes: “Across the South and in Virginia, felon disenfranchisement laws, together with poll taxes and literacy tests, have had a disproportionately negative impact on African American voters, and have at times been used intentionally to consolidate and preserve white control over the political process.”
Disenfranchisement laws are especially relevant in today’s America, which has spent the last three decades constructing a prison-industrial complex that has resulted in a culture of incarceration. The nation has only five percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prison population, translating to an incarceration rate of over 700 per 100,000. Not only is this the world’s highest rate, but over half the countries in the world have rates below 150 per 100,000. Thus, denial of the right to vote to felons is not just an academic issue.
And just as the laws were intended in the Civil War era, the phenomenon of felon disenfranchisement hits African American communities especially hard. According to McAuliffe, the impact of decades of felon disenfranchisement in Virginia has resulted in one in five African Americans of voting age being excluded from voting. Thus, even if we pretend that the intent behind the law wasn’t to overtly attack the black vote, it’s impossible to dispute that the effect has been discriminatory. In both purpose and effect, disenfranchisement laws are instruments of white supremacy. Those jurisdictions wishing to move beyond a history of injustice would take immediate steps to get them off the books.
Anyone who actually works in the justice system knows that it is far from perfect, that innocent people are frequently convicted, and that the poor are particularly vulnerable. In the midst of such imperfection, there is no justification for the government to unnecessarily add the loss of voting rights to the mix, thus increasing the likelihood that the poorest among us will be excluded from the political process for life.
And even as a practical matter, it’s hard to imagine disenfranchisement laws having a deterrent effect on crime. Since when have voting rights been a high priority for criminals? As two conspirators plot a crime—burglary, robbery, or anything else—it’s doubtful that one has ever stopped the other and said, “Gee, maybe we shouldn’t do this. If we get caught, we lose our right to vote.” The objective of such laws, of course, has never been deterrence, but the hostile disempowerment of a demographic
If the fundamental idea of democracy is citizen engagement and participation in government, nothing is gained by denying any capable adult—even those convicted of serious crimes—the right of participation. The alternative is to give government the power to deny certain individuals access to participatory democracy. As the Jim Crow era proved, and as we continue to see today, this is not just a theoretical concern.
For these reasons, there should be no means by which government can obstruct able, voting-age individuals entry to the polls. As McAuliffe said when interviewed on the subject, “It was the right thing to do legally. . . It was the right thing to do morally.”
Civic engagement would seem to be one aspect of post-prison life that might tend to keep individuals on a law-abiding path. Though I’m unaware of any studies on the subject, I would speculate that crime rates are somewhat lower for those who vote, attend city council meetings, and otherwise participate in civic life in their communities, than for those who are completely disengaged.
Why would be want to take affirmative steps to ensure that those leaving prison, having paid their dues to society, remain disengaged? The honest answer forces us to confront the unpleasant reality of institutionalized racism.