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COMMENTARY: Felon voting rights is a racial justice issue

COMMENTARY: Felon voting rights is a racial justice issue

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PHOTO: Incarcerated felon

THE PAST year has been full of disappointments, whether it’s been the long and trying pandemic, economic hardship, election uncertainty, or the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. But one bright spot we can point to is the broad changing of attitudes around issues of criminal justice, policing, and punishment.

It’s my view that our commonwealth is finally ready for a real conversation about ending the practice of felon disenfranchisement that is enshrined in Virginia’s constitution.

While legislation restoring voting rights to ex-felons looks like it may pass the General Assembly this year, less has been said about restoring voting rights to those who are currently incarcerated or otherwise serving out a sentence.

The Virginia Constitution insists that “no person who has been convicted of a felony shall be qualified to vote unless his civil rights have been restored by the Governor or other appropriate authority.”

I say we wipe that sentence from the books with no replacement.

When we move past our knee-jerk response to such a proposal, it becomes easier to see how revoking one’s right to vote after a conviction is a moral failing and an act of racial injustice. In fact, it is yet another relic of Jim Crow enacted in order to hold on to economic and political power.

While poll taxes and literacy tests kept Black people away from the ballot box for decades after the Civil War, felon disenfranchisement ensured that anyone who was swept up in the sham that was the Jim Crow criminal justice system lost their right to vote forever.

Mass incarceration of Black people is still pursued to this day, whether through drug prohibition, the criminalization of poverty, or policing tactics that target communities of color.

And although those who are incarcerated can’t vote, they are still counted towards representation and resources for the voting district in which they are imprisoned. . It’s similar to the three-fifths compromise where Black people counted towards empowering those with full citizenship, but were denied their own political power.

Now many people have caught on to the radically commonsense idea that we can’t police, jail, and imprison a way out of our problems as a society; and that our criminal justice system produces crime rather than solves it. When your criminal status is more indicative of your racial and economic background than anything else, then your racial and economic background is really the driving force behind whether or not you can vote.

Besides, why shouldn’t the incarcerated have a say in our democracy? Why shouldn’t those who live at the mercy of the system have a voice in holding that system accountable for how it treats them and others?

Many developed nations still allow their imprisoned population to vote, including Canada, Spain, Ireland, South Africa, and the Scadinavian countries. As do the states of Maine and Vermont. Ensuring the right to vote as a universal and unalienable right should be a foundational piece of our democracy.

This isn’t just political to me; it’s personal. My own brother is a Virginia citizen who lost his right to vote due to felon disenfranchisement. Despite not committing another crime in more than 30 years, he still cannot vote.

His story reminds me that rehabilitation should be the ultimate goal of our criminal justice system, and rehabilitation can’t come if we don’t seriously address the racism of that system and the historic mark of white supremacy.

Sean Perryman is president emeritus of the Fairfax County Chapter of the NAACP, a technology public policy advocate, attorney, and former congressional investigator.

Sean Perryman is president emeritus of the Fairfax County Chapter of the NAACP, a technology public policy advocate, attorney, and former congressional investigator. 

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