It’s should come as no surprise that Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell is taking steps to rid the states of laws blocking people with felony convictions from the ballot box.
Earlier this month Census data revealed that in the 2012 elections black voter turnout was higher than white voter turnout for the first time in history. This was a great achievement, but hidden within this achievement was the painful detail that a 100 year-old voter suppression tactic still had a negative impact on voter turnout. According to the New York Times the state-by-state practice of blocking people with felony convictions from the polls, played a major role in decreasing black voter turnout in the 2012 election, especially for black men.
Voter turnout is highly impacted if the Census removes the nearly 4.4 million citizens. In an analysis by Bernard L. Fraga, the voter turnout rate jumps from 61.4 to 68 percent for black men. For black women, the difference is more than one percent.
Millions of disenfranchised citizens
The numbers are stark, but not surprising and they come at the expense of millions of disenfranchised citizens. After all, the analysis shows what felony disenfranchisement was always intended to do, which is not to serve as a tool for crime and justice, but to suppress the vote particularly for communities of color.
Shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation and shift in black influence, black codes and grandfather clauses were put in place to stop the growth of black voters. At the same time, felony lists were amended to include crimes committed by blacks, like petty theft, and exclude crimes committed by whites, like rape. This bolstered felony disenfranchisement laws already in place. Delegate Carter Glass announced that it would “eliminate the darkey as a political factor” at the 1901 Virginia Commonwealth Convention. The intent was explicit.
Today the intent is less explicit, but the result is the same. In Florida, Kentucky and Virginia alone, these laws disenfranchise more than 20 percent of their black adult voting-age population. Nearly one in 10 black men nationwide cannot vote because of state laws barring people with felony convictions from the polls and there is a face behind the data.
These disenfranchised voters are our loved-ones, neighbors, coworkers, fellow citizens and taxpayers. A ring of bad choices, and a zero tolerance minimum sentence, sent an abused young woman to jail and into a voting rights battle that lasted 12 years. Another mistake 15 years ago, stopped a Florida mother and law graduate from taking the bar exam and voting in elections. For Dennis Gaddy in North Carolina, a bout of bad luck and poor financial decisions threw him into a quagmire of re-entry obstacles, including being blocked from the polls. The stories are limitless.
Without the high visibility of those stories however, the disenfranchisement of the formerly incarcerated will continue unchecked.
A evolving narrative
But moves to restore voting rights in states like Delaware, Virginia, and Iowa are proof that the narrative is gradually changing. Delaware state legislatures recognized it as a matter of rights and empowerment. The state Senate bill sponsor referred to this year’s historic state Constitutional amendment as a right that they must guarantee to voting aged citizens that are returning to society and reestablishing their lives. After making restoration of rights a priority this year, the Virginia’s governor officially announced his plan to restore the votes of all non-violent offenders on Wednesday and the change could restore the votes of more than 100,000 Virginians this year.
For Virginia, Delaware and remaining states, the fight to amend the state Constitution and expand automatic restoration of rights to all people who have paid their debts and are returning to society will continue beyond the current administration.
We must reverse 100-year old practices designed to disenfranchise citizens based on the color of their skin. Let’s hold our democracy to the highest standard— where all citizens, including those that have paid their debt to society, can vote on Election Day.
Jotaka Eaddy (@jotakaeaddy) is the NAACP’s Senior Advisor to the President and CEO and Senior Director of Voting Rights. Kemba Smith-Pradia (@kembasmith) is a long-time advocate, founder of the Kemba Smith Foundation, and author of Poster Child.