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“A Law Embedded Then Civil War-Era”: Restoring Voting Rights To Felons Is The Right Thing To Do

Of all the consequences of the nation’s decades-long infatuation with building more and more prisons and locking up more and more citizens, perhaps the most curious is this: More than 4 million Americans who have been released from prison have lost their right to vote, according to the non-profit Sentencing Project.

Even after men and women have served their time — after they have paid their debt to society, as the cliche goes — most states restrict their franchise. It’s an odd idea: Those men and women are harmless enough to release onto the streets, but they can’t be trusted to vote. They have finished serving their sentences, but they are barred from full citizenship.

A disproportionate number of those second-class citizens are black. Because black Americans, particularly men, are locked up at a higher rate than their white peers, this peculiar practice falls heavily on them. Nationwide, one in every 13 black adults cannot vote as the result of a felony conviction, as opposed to one in 56 non-black voters, according to the Sentencing Project, which advocates for alternatives to mass incarceration.

It’s undemocratic, it’s unfair and it’s un-American. While ancient Greek and Roman codes withdrew the franchise from those who had committed serious crimes, most Western countries now see those codes as outdated.

Recognizing that, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, used his executive power earlier this month to sweep away his state’s laws limiting the franchise for felons. With that action, about 200,000 convicted felons who have completed their prison time and finished parole or probation are now eligible to vote.

McAuliffe noted that Virginia’s law — one of the nation’s harshest and embedded in a Civil War-era state constitution — didn’t hobble the voting rights of black citizens through mere coincidence. That was its purpose. McAuliffe’s staff came across a 1906 report in which a then-state senator gloated about several voting restrictions, including a poll tax and literacy tests, that, he said, would “eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this state in less than five years,” according to The New York Times.

You’d think that McAuliffe’s fellow Virginia politicians, Republicans and Democrats alike, would celebrate his decision. Eliminating barriers to the franchise — especially those with obviously racist roots — can only polish the state’s image and strengthen the civic fabric.

But GOP leaders have objected, accusing McAuliffe of “political opportunism” and a “transparent effort to win votes.” Well, OK. Let’s stipulate that politicians are usually in the business of trying to win votes.

Having conceded that, though, isn’t restoring the voting rights of men and women who have served their time a good idea? If a crime renders a man beyond the boundaries of civilized society, he should be imprisoned for the rest of his life. Otherwise, his crime shouldn’t place him in an inferior caste, without the privileges of full citizenship.

Curiously, though, many conservatives seem to disagree. After Democrat Steve Beshear, then Kentucky’s governor, issued an executive order last year similar to McAuliffe’s, his Republican successor, Matt Bevin, overturned it. Bevin signed a law allowing felons to petition judges to vacate their convictions — a bureaucratic hurdle not easily overcome. Maryland’s GOP governor, Larry Hogan, vetoed a bill to restore voting rights to felons, but the Democratically controlled legislature overrode him.

Those Republican governors are simply following the party’s script, which has focused for the last several years on ways to block the ballot, starting with harsh voter ID laws. While advocates of such laws claim they are meant to protect against voting fraud, the sort of in-person fraud they would prevent hardly exists.

The real motivation for GOP lawmakers is to restrict the franchise from people unlikely to vote for them — especially people of color and millennials. Rather than campaign on a platform that attracts support, they rely on barriers to voting.

That’s wrong. The strength of American democracy depends on persuading more citizens that their votes count; carelessly — or intentionally — disenfranchising those with whom you disagree rends the civic fabric, distorts the political process and stokes the flames of discontent.

We surely don’t need more of that in this political season.

 

By: Cynthia Tucker Haynes, Pulitzer Prize Winner for Commentary in 2007; The National Memo, April 29, 2016

April 30, 2016 Posted by | Citizenship, Criminal Justice System, Terry McAuliffe, Voting Rights | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“What Occurred Here Is Unacceptable”: Attempting To Forge Relationships With Republican Is An Exercise In Futility

When reader G.S. emailed me yesterday to tell me Republican lawmakers in Virginia had broken into Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s (D) office, I assumed this was some kind of joke. But as the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported, that’s kind of what happened on Fathers’ Day weekend.

At the urging of House Speaker William J. Howell, the clerk’s office of the House of Delegates enlisted the help of the Capitol Police to enter Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s unoccupied, secure suite of offices on a Sunday afternoon to deliver the state budget.

The highly unusual entry on June 15 took place without the permission of administration officials or the knowledge of the Virginia State Police, which is in charge of protecting the governor. McAuliffe was not in the building.

Let’s back up and review the larger context. GOP lawmakers in the commonwealth recently hatched an ugly scheme, arguably bribing a Democratic state senator – who has since lawyered up – in order to allow GOP control of the chamber. Once the scheme worked and Republicans seized control of the state Senate, GOP lawmakers passed a conservative budget that, among other things, tried to kill Medicaid expansion, denying medical coverage to 400,000 low-income Virginians.

McAuliffe eventually signed the budget bill, but not before using his line-item veto on Medicaid-related provisions. The Democratic governor said at the time that he would have preferred to veto the entire budget, but with state finances expiring on July 1, he didn’t have time – a veto likely would have shut down the state government.

And that’s where the GOP plan to enter McAuliffe’s office without his permission becomes important.

Once Republicans completed work on their version of the budget, the next step was to deliver the document to the governor’s office. GOP lawmakers, however, wanted to give McAuliffe as little time as possible, increasing the pressure that he’d have to sign it to prevent a shutdown.

As the Richmond paper explained, “Once the clerk’s office enrolls a budget and delivers it to the governor, the statutory clock starts ticking. The governor has seven days to take action on the spending plan.”

In this case, however, Republicans decided to start the clock when they knew the governor and his staff weren’t in their offices. Indeed, GOP lawmakers waited until they knew the offices were empty, ignored security protocols, and delivered the budget knowing no one would be there to receive it.

They then sent an email, 15 minutes later, stating for the record that the document had been dropped off (and the clock was ticking).

To put it mildly, the governor’s office was not pleased that lawmakers had entered their workspace, uninvited, knowing no one was there. McAuliffe’s chief of staff, Paul Reagan, wrote an angry letter to Col. Anthony S. Pike, chief of the Virginia Capitol Police, cc’ing GOP leaders and the superintendent of the Virginia State Police, which is responsible for the governor’s security.

“This letter is to inform you that under no circumstances are you or any of your officers authorized to allow employees of the General Assembly to enter the secure areas of the governor’s office without my express permission, or the express permission of Suzette Denslow, the governor’s deputy chief of staff,” Reagan wrote in the letter to Pike, dated June 18.

“What occurred here Sunday is unacceptable,” the letter continues. “Two employees of the speaker of the House of Delegates were given access to an area of the governor’s office where sensitive files and materials are kept.”

I’m reminded of some reports out of Virginia a few months ago. McAuliffe put his “celebrated talents for sociability and salesmanship” to work, trying to forge relationships with Republican lawmakers, inviting them to social events, and throwing open the doors to the Executive Mansion.

So much for that idea.

As Robert Schlesinger explained at the time: “[A]nyone who thinks that back-slapping joviality is the key to ending Washington gridlock need look no further than Richmond for its limits.”

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, June 26, 2014

June 27, 2014 Posted by | Terry McAuliffe, Virginia Legislature | , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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