May 6, 2016; Washington Post
Within a week of proposing an amendment that would protect the identity of companies supplying drugs for the lethal injection, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe surprised criminal reform advocates by restoring voting rights to over 200,000 formerly incarcerated inmates in preparation for the November general election. While McAuliffe’s executive order, which bypassed the state’s General Assembly, was met with significant backlash, the race is on to register as many of the former inmates as possible before the election. In the two weeks since the order was signed, more than 2,000, or about one percent of those eligible, have signed up to vote.
Miring McAuliffe’s order are the political ramifications of allowing the former prison population in Virginia to have a voice in the election. Some believe this is a bid to help McAuliffe’s friend, Hillary Clinton; statistically, ex-inmates are more likely to align with the Democratic platform. As with many other states, Virginia’s ban on ex-felon voting particularly affected black residents. One in four African Americans in Virginia had been barred from voting. A famous 2002 study illustrates how felon disenfranchisement in the 2000 election may have prevented Al Gore from winning Florida, subsequently costing him the election. However, as of yet, it’s uncertain how the restoration will impact the election. Those registering to vote in Virginia do not need to declare a party affiliation.
Regardless, groups like the NAACP and grassroots advocacy organization New Virginia Majority have joined in the effort to help ex-offenders register. New Virginia Majority co-director Tram Nguyen dismissed the arguments against the political motivations behind the order. “People say it’s political,” said Nguyen. “But for us, this is a moral issue and something that’s beyond any election cycle, beyond any candidate. It’s about giving a voice to a community that has felt voiceless.” Within days of the order, canvassers from the group were ready to infiltrate communities to educate and sign up ex-offenders.
This measure is particularly important, as some ex-inmates may not realize they had the ability to register. Ex-inmate Phil Thomas, 47, did not know until a canvasser from New Virginia Majority came to his doorstep. Before this order, Virginia was among 11 states where violent ex-offenders could not vote unless given an individual exemption. (McAuliffe has already given 18,000 nonviolent offenders in the state the ability to vote.)
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Thomas was previously incarcerated on a drug charge and has since realized the value of voting. “Now I look back on it, [the drug charge was] the worst mistake I made,” said Thomas. “Because I’m getting old now, I’m realizing how important [voting] is.”
Even violent ex-offenders who are no longer on probation or parole now have the right to vote, which may surprise some former inmates. While canvassing in a low-income neighborhood, workers collected more than 100 applications in an hour. According to Edward A. Hailes, Jr., managing director and general counsel at the Advancement Project, educating ex-offenders is a significant hurdle in restoring voting rights. “The biggest obstacle in most states is that people just do not know that they ever could get their rights restored,” said Hailes.
Moreover, along with the right to vote, the order also allows ex-offenders in Virginia to sit on juries, run for office, and become notaries. As in other states where rights are restored, this significant measure affords ex-offenders rights they may not realize they have. As such, along with providing resources on reentry, housing, and jobs, the nonprofit community should consider investing in the resources to educate ex-offenders on their voting rights as they extend beyond their ability to check a box in a voting booth. Symbolically, serving on a jury is a major step forward in reintegrating into society, but voting rights are often not a top priority for those working on inmate reentry.
McAuliffe will have to sign an executive order every month for the next two years until his term is over to allow violent ex-offenders to remain eligible for the rights. The future of the order is uncertain when a new governor takes office in 2017.—Shafaq Hasan