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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Governor Kaine’s Opportunity

Mitch Malasky of Sum of Change, has an interesting Daily Kos post, “The Restoration of Rights for Former Felons in Virginia” in which he spotlights an important opportunity that could give Dems a potential edge of thousands of voters in a key swing state.
Malasky notes that only two states, KY and VA have no laws restoring citizenship rights (voting) to convicted felons who have served their sentences. All other states have a voting rights restoration path. Malasky adds,

This puts a plethora of problems and restrictions on former felons, many of whom were convicted of non-violent crimes decades ago but continue have their basic rights, such as the right to vote in elections, the right to drive, and the right to hold office, restricted. The governor has the authority to restore rights to individual felons, but only a small percentage of them apply for restoration (often because the process is unclear) and even fewer are actually approved to have their rights restored. The 48 other states have some sort of provision to automatically restore rights, two states never revoke them in the first place, so we, and many others, feel that it time to change the situation.

A good cause, made urgent priority by a small window of opportunity being opened for Dems in VA. Malasky explains:

This next two weeks are very important for doing just because that is all the time left Virginia has with Democratic Governor Tim Kaine, who will be replaced in two weeks when he leaves office to become the chair of the DNC by Republican Bob MacDonnell. Gov Kaine has personally restored the rights to more former felons than any of his predecessors, but he has the ability to, by executive order, to instantly restore rights to the tens of thousands of former felons who currently do not have them and establish such a system to automatically restore these rights in the future…

According to Malasky, a coalition spearheaded by the Virginia Organizing Project (VOP) is taking the lead in organizing Virginians to support restoration of voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences. The coalition urges Virginians to call Gov. Kaine (804-786-2211) and urge him to sign the executive order. Kaine, who has restored, on a case by case basis, the voting rights of all individual applicants who have completed their sentences for nonviolent crimes, has said “our analysis of Virginia law is that I can’t just do a blanket restoration – I have to restore people by name.”
Felon disenfranchisement is a national disgrace in a nation that prides itself in democracy. Disenfranchising convicted felons who have served their sentences, as do VA and KY, compounds the injustice, as does the fact that a disproportionate share of disenfranchised former felons are African Americans.
As The Sentencing Project notes,

An estimated 5.3 million American citizens cannot vote because of a criminal conviction. Of these, 4 million are out of prison and living and working in the community…This fundamental obstacle to participation in democratic life is exacerbated by racial disparities in the criminal justice system, resulting in an estimated 13% of Black men unable to vote…Restoring a person’s right to vote is a critical element to successful reentry into society after incarceration and consistent with our democracy’s modern ideal of universal suffrage.
…More than 60% of the people in prison are now racial and ethnic minorities. For Black males in their twenties, 1 in every 8 is in prison or jail on any given day. These trends have been intensified by the disproportionate impact of the “war on drugs,” in which three-fourths of all persons in prison for drug offenses are people of color.

According to The Sentencing Project, more than 377,000 Virginians have been disenfranchised as a result of felony convictions, more than 208 thousand of whom are African Americans. In terms of racial disparities in current incarceration rates in Virginia, the ratio of black to white is 5.9:1 and 1.2:1 for Hispanic to white Virginians.
Kaine should go ahead and issue the executive order, not because it helps his party, but because it’s the right thing to do. If it doesn’t hold up as law, he will still have taken a stand to promote awareness of a gross injustice and right a great wrong.
Meanwhile, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) is pushing his Democracy Restoration Act and Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) has a similar House bill, “the Civic Participation and Rehabilitation Act,” both of which would restore federal voting rights to all citizens released from prison and living in the community. A great cause, and one which should be a more urgent legislative priority — especially for Dems.

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