Governor Terry McAuliffe of Virginia used his executive authority on Friday to overrule the state legislature and restore voting rights to over 200,000 state residents with felony convictions. His decision reverses a post-reconstruction era law that particularly targeted African Americans. “Those who have paid their debts to society should be allowed full participation in society,” said Gov. McAuliffe.
He has been accused by Republican lawmakers of engaging in “a transparent effort to win votes,” making a politically opportunistic move based on the assumption that voters with felony convictions are more likely to vote Democrat. However, bans on felon voting have long been used as tools to bump black, impoverished and other marginalized Americans from voter rolls—a point which was not lost on McAuliffe.”There’s no question that we’ve had a horrible history in voting rights as relates to African Americans,” he said. “We should remedy it.”
While liberals are hailing McAuliffe’s latests move, his progressive credentials are hardly unblemished; he has recently come under fire for supporting a controversial measure to allow pharmacies to mix execution drugs in secret.
The issue of disenfranchisement has been contentious across the US. For example, the new governor of Kentucky, Matt Bevin, has just reversed a more by his predecessor which restored voting rights to felons in that state. And though many states are moving towards the restoration of voter rights, it is estimated that in the US approximately 5.85 million people are still unable to vote due to felony convictions—comfortably enough to swing a tight presidential election.
The idea that politicians, whose power is awarded by voters, should also decide who gets to vote (by ultimately directing what is and isn’t a felony) is a peculiarly American vicious circle.