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Ethics & Religion
Column #2110
Jan. 19, 2021
Restore Voting Rights to Ex-Felons
By Mike McManus

During his last week in office, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam restored voting and other civil rights to 69,000 formerly incarcerated felons.

Northam said it is unfair to deprive a former felon of their rights once they have served their term. "Probationary periods can last for years. But that's also time in which a person is living in the community, rebuilding a life. They should be able to exercise those civil rights, even if they are still under supervision."
"Letting these folks vote or exercise other civil rights isn't a threat to public safety," he asserted. "We're a Commonwealth that believes in second chances. And we believe in forgiveness. We want people to move forward, not be held down by the mistakes of their past."

Northam restored the rights of 69,045 people last Tuesday.

Kelly Thomasson, Virginia's Secretary of the Commonwealth, asserted, "We're making a kind of technical change that has a big impact. You don't deserve to permanently have these rights stripped away because of a mistake you made. It's about treating people equally and fairly."

Nationally, nearly 5.2 million Americans cannot vote because of a felony conviction according to The Sentencing Project. The barrier particularly affects Black people. One out of 16 Black people are barred from the ballot box because of felony disenfranchisement laws, nearly four times the rate of non-Black Americans.

Northam's actions are the latest in a series. With Tuesday's announcement Northam said he has restored voting rights for more than 111,000 Virginians during his time in office.

His predecessor as governor, Gov. Terry McAuliffe, asserted he restored voting rights for more than 156,000 Virginians - which he said was one of his "proudest achievements" as governor.

In 18 states felons automatically receive a restoration of voting rights as soon as they are released from prison, according to the National Conference of State Legislators.

Before Northam's initiative, Virginia was one of only two states that constitutionally took away people's ability to vote forever if they have been convicted of a felony, unless a governor restores that right - as Northam did.

Research indicates that restoring the right of citizens to vote - means they are less likely to return to criminal activity and more likely to make a positive impact on in their communities - making them safer for everyone.

It is likely we may know some of these returning citizens. They are veterans, entrepreneurs, non-profit founders, mothers, fathers, pastors, business people. They are people who made a mistake, but have rehabilitated their lives, and look forward to being fully engaged in their communities. They come from all walks of life.

Many states adopted felon voting bans in the 1860s and 1870s, at the same time that voting rights for black citizens were being considered and contested. The first felony disenfranchisement law was introduced in Kentucky in 1792. By1840 four states had felony disenfranchisement policies.

By the Civil War 24 states had such laws. As of 2018, most states had policies to restore voting rights upon completion of a sentence. Only three states - Virginia, Iowa and Kentucky - permanently disenfranchised a convict; six 6 other states had limited restoration based on crimes of "moral turpitude."

As of 2008, over 5.3 million people were denied the right to vote due to felony convictions. In the national election of 2012, various state laws blocked 5.85 million felons from voting, up from 1.2 million in 1876. That blocked 2.5% of potential voters.

The state with the highest number of disenfranchised voters was Florida, where 1.5 million ex-felons could not vote. That was about 10% of voting age citizens. , including 774,000 who were disenfranchised only due to financial obligations.

In October, 2020, an estimated 5.1 million voters were disenfranchised in voting for President. That was 1 in 44 citizens.

Felony disenfranchisement reforms were lifted in many states, resulting in 1.4 million Americans regaining voting rights.

There is hope, thanks to leaders like former Gov. Northam.

Copyright (c)2022 Michael J. McManus, a syndicated columnist and past president of Marriage Savers. To read past columns, go to Hit Search for any topic.


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