ACCORDING to Article II, Section I of the Constitution of Virginia, a person who is tried and convicted of a felony offense automatically loses the right to vote: “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.”
That’s the case in most of the United States. Convicted felons retain their right to vote only in the District of Columbia, Maine and Vermont.
The thinking behind this policy is simple: Individuals who refuse to obey the law should not have a say in selecting lawmakers. And a person who exhibits contempt for society does not deserve its rewards, one of them being the franchise. Losing the right to vote is part of their punishment.
However, a steady drumbeat by various groups and individuals arguing against “felon disenfranchisement” has had some success in chipping away at the policy as politicians see it as a way to increase their political base.
In 2013, then-Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell signed an executive order that waived the two-year waiting period for non-violent felons and restored their rights after paying any court-ordered fines or restitution.
McDonnell said that after serving their sentences, non-violent felons “deserve a second chance to fully rejoin society and exercise their civil and constitutional rights”—which include not only voting, but also serving on a jury, running for public office and acting as a notary public.
In 2016, then-Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed another executive order that attempted to automatically restore voting rights to all convicted felons who had completed their sentences en masse.
But the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that rights restoration can only be done on an individual basis. McAuliffe went back and individually restored the voting rights of 156,221 felons, calling it his “proudest achievement” as governor.
But now some people are calling for restoration of felons’ voting rights even while they are still incarcerated. Their numbers include Sean Perryman, a candidate for lieutenant governor who, in a Feb. 11 op-ed [“Felon voting rights is a racial justice issue] published by The Free Lance-Star, argued that not allowing incarcerated inmates to vote is a “relic of Jim Crow.”
But the practice of not allowing convicted felons to vote predates Jim Crow, and harkens back to ancient Greek and Roman law. It is also extant in Northern states that never had Jim Crow laws.
Furthermore, Section 2 of the 14th Amendment, which made it illegal for states to pass laws abridging the “privileges or immunities of the citizens of the United States,” makes an exception for “participation in rebellion, or other crime.”
During the past decade, Virginia governors of both parties have made it much easier for released felons to have their voting rights restored. But that’s contingent on them serving their sentences in full and staying on the right side of the law following their release. That’s an essential part of the bargain.
Felons should not be able to cancel out their victims’ votes before they’ve completed their sentences, shown some remorse for their crimes, and made whatever court-ordered restitution is required. This is only fair.
Inmates who are still in prison obviously have not done all of these things. In fact, giving felons voting rights while they are still incarcerated, and thus putting them on equal footing with law-abiding citizens, would be a slap in the face to the very communities their crimes dishonored.