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Monday, June 06, 2016


Restoring full citizenship

by Tom Sullivan

Restoring felons' right to vote after parole is a hit or miss prospect among the several states. Maryland restored voting rights to ex-offenders in February. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe recently signed an executive order restoring paroled felons' voting rights there, nullifying "a Civil War-era provision in the State Constitution that barred convicted felons from voting for life." The New York Times set up the backstory to this morning's news back in April:

Amid intensifying national attention over harsh sentencing policies that have disproportionately affected African-Americans, governors and legislatures around the nation have been debating — and often fighting over — moves to restore voting rights for convicted felons. Virginia imposes especially harsh restrictions, barring felons from voting for life.

In Kentucky, Gov. Matt Bevin, a newly elected Republican, recently overturned an order enacted by his Democratic predecessor that was similar to the one Mr. McAuliffe signed Friday. In Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, vetoed a measure to restore voting rights to convicted felons, but Democrats in the state legislature overrode him in February and an estimated 44,000 former prisoners who are on probation can now register to vote.
5.8 million Americans are not allowed to vote because of past felonies, according to the Sentencing Project. More than one in five African Americans in Virginia.

Leah Taylor, 45, an African-American mother of six, nearly shed tears upon hearing her rights had been restored. A teenage mother, she had spent a year in jail after conviction at 20 for selling cocaine and had never voted. Today she has her life "back on track" and will be able to vote for the very first time this November.

But this morning we read in the Times that Republicans in Richmond are working to undo that:
Top Republicans in the state legislature are seeking to block Mr. McAuliffe’s sweeping order, which re-enfranchised 206,000 Virginians who have completed sentences, probation or parole. Last week, the Supreme Court announced a special session to hear arguments in July — in time to rule before the November election.

The suit has plunged Virginia and Mr. McAuliffe — a Democrat and close friend of Hillary Clinton’s, the party’s likely presidential nominee — into yet another racially charged voting rights battle. In May, a federal judge upheld a Republican-backed law requiring Virginia voters to provide photo identification, while the Supreme Court let stand a court-imposed redistricting map, drawn to address Democrats’ complaints of racially motivated gerrymandering.

This next fight over restoring voting rights to convicted felons — an issue playing out nationally — could affect the presidential contest and Mrs. Clinton’s fortunes in Virginia, a critical swing state. Ever since Mr. McAuliffe’s order on April 22, progressive groups have been waging a furious registration campaign; as of Friday, state elections officials said, more than 5,800 newly eligible voters had signed up.
Restoring felons' voting rights is a big deal, but not usually publicized. For years, electioneers working early voting outside the Board of Elections here came to recognize the look of attorneys and clients coming and going, papers in hand, from the adjacent county courthouse. One recounts asking a young man in the fall of 2008 if he was coming to vote.

"No, ma'am. I can't vote. I'm a felon."

But he had just come from the final hearing that completed his parole. The volunteer explained that in that case his voting rights were restored automatically in North Carolina. He could register and vote for Obama. She sent him inside to check with the Board of Elections. He emerged later having voted that day. There may not have been tears, but perhaps a high-five.