Convicted felons in Virginia may determine whether newly elected governor Democrat Ralph Northam can successfully carry out his progressive agenda of a higher minimum wage, gun control and Medicaid expansion. Did Virginia voters see that coming?
Democrats and Republicans continue to fight for control of Virginia’s House of Delegates. State-wide elections on November 7 gave the GOP a razor-thin edge in several districts and a resulting 51-49 lead in the state’s chamber. The leader in the 94th House District race in Newport News, for example, is ahead by only 10 votes. Democrats are demanding a recount in at least three contests where the GOP margin of victory is under 0.5 percent. The stakes are high; Northam’s liberal to-do list has much higher odds of success if Democrats take over the House. Republicans still lead the state’s Senate, but only by two seats.
And in the main, most probably, voted for Democrats.
McAuliffe’s predecessor Republican Robert McDonnell made it easier for convicted felons to vote in 2013, though violent offenders still had to wait five years and all candidates had to pay any outstanding fines and court costs. McAuliffe, elected in 2014, junked that latter requirement and in the spring of 2016, in time for the presidential election, issued a series of executive orders restoring voting rights to over 200,000 people with felony convictions who had completed their sentences.
Republicans contested the 2016 move, which gave voting rights to, among others, more than one hundred still-incarcerated sex offenders and a number of convicted murderers who were at large in other states. The court ruled that Virginia’s constitution allowed restoration of voting rights only on a case-by-case basis; McAuliffe’s orders were overturned.
Undiscouraged, in August last year McAuliffe started rapid-fire re-awarding of voting rights to large numbers of individuals even if they had not requested it; the only standard was that the persons involved had to have completed their sentence or, in the case of multiple felonies, sentences.
By April of this year, the governor was able to announce that he had conferred the right to vote on more than 156,000 criminals. Not only would those people immediately be allowed to register to vote, they would also be allowed “to run for office, to serve on a jury and to serve as a notary public.” The governor declared it his “proudest achievement.”
In a recent op-ed, the New York Times celebrated McAuliffe’s move, noting that the change was especially beneficial to blacks, who are incarcerated at a higher rate than whites. They describe the “pointless cruelty of felon disenfranchisement laws, which block more than six million from voting.” As they report, before McAuliffe stepped in, “more than one in five black Virginians were barred from voting.”
This conversation should not be about race. The writers of Virginia’s constitution had a reason for barring those guilty of breaking the law from voting for politicians who write those laws or judges and law officials who enforce them. They presumed that if people cared about their right to vote they might avoid criminal acts — that losing the right to vote would be a deterrent. It turns out they expected too much.
In the recent campaign, voting rights became a hot topic. Republican Ed Gillespie ran a controversial ad blasting McAuliffe and his would-be successor Ralph Northam for giving the vote to a convicted pedophile who “had his rights restored two months after being found with one of the largest child pornography collections in Virginia’s history.” The repeat offender again lost his right to vote when convicted for the second time and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. Gillespie’s opponents accused him of sensationalizing the issue, which indeed he was, but his claims were on point. He simply personalized the mass restoration that McAuliffe had allowed.
During the election, activist groups like New Virginia Majority scurried to register those freed criminals newly allowed to vote. It is no surprise that the group endorsed thirteen candidates in the recent election – all of them Democrats.
As is its custom, the Times pontificates that restoration of voting rights to convicted criminals should not be a partisan issue, and we might agree. But let’s also be honest enough to agree that it became just that in Virginia, and with upwards of six million such votes at stake across the country, will surface again when races are tight.
The argument over restoration of voting rights has been cast as one of social justice. Most people think it makes sense that someone who has served their time should get a fresh start. But with recidivism rates of 77 percent among felons, requiring a wait-and-see period makes sense, too. As does the requirement that an official review each case, to allow for consideration of extenuating circumstances such as plea deals or multiple offenses. Demanding payment of court costs and fees also seems a reasonable standard.
Bottom line: this decision should not spring from the mind of a self-interested politician in an election year, but rather be argued in the court of public opinion, and perhaps put to voters.