Richard Cizik: Virginia should change course
on rights restoration
THE VIRGINIA SUPREME Court sided this month with Republican lawmakers and upheld felony disenfranchisement laws, delivering a devastating blow to Virginia’s democratic process and to more than 200,000 potential voters who have earned the right to participate in the electoral process.
Today in Virginia, anyone who has committed a felony offense must have his voting rights restored by the governor even after he has completed the terms of his sentence. More troubling is that nearly half of Virginia’s disenfranchised citizens completed their sentences more than a decade ago, according to data released by Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s office.
Sadly, these would-be voters are victims of a century-old effort to suppress the power of Virginia’s non-white voters. In 1902, Virginia’s constitutional convention delegates codified a ban on voting for all convicted felons that coincided with the increasing number of offenses that could be considered felonies, specifically offenses that were a manifestation of Jim Crow laws and often dubiously lobbed on black citizens.
Their intentions are still painfully clear among the disenfranchised today. One in five voting age African-Americans in Virginia cannot vote because of a past felony conviction.
As an evangelical, I refuse to stand idly by while those who have paid their debt to society are further disenfranchised. This sort of invidious discrimination is unacceptable. Is this what we really want to do to ex-offenders who have paid their debt to society?
Thus, I take it as my moral responsibility — and whether of faith or no faith — together as members of the commonwealth, we must ensure that the rights of all God’s children are protected and restored.
In Virginia and across the country, people affected by these laws are our neighbors, family members, co-workers, employees and even employers. They deserve to have a voice not just in the selection of their elected officials, but also in the school systems their children attend, the neighborhoods where they live, and the communities they serve. Without access, crucial decisions that affect their lives become the sole responsibility of a select few. We cannot expect self-reliance if we do not grant self-determination.
Fortunately, the commonwealth has evolved since 1902. In fact, McAuliffe’s courageous re-enfranchisement order followed in the footsteps of former Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, current Democratic vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine, several legislators and many community groups who have taken the lead and worked in Virginia to expand rights.
Voters are also ready to restore the vote. Public Policy Polling found that 65 percent of Virginia voters supported the governor’s order. Challenges brought on by Virginia Republican lawmakers not only defy leadership, but also their constituency.
Including Virginia, there are now only four states that strip voting rights from people with felony convictions. Several states have established reforms within the past few years to streamline the restoration or application process, and Virginia officials do not have to look far to see other examples of leadership or sweeping change.
Delaware amended its constitution in 2013. This year, Maryland legislators overcame six vetoes to restore voting rights. The District of Columbia has automatically granted rights to returning citizens for several years. The tide is not changing; it has already changed.
It is our civic duty and moral responsibility to protect, ensure and restore the right to vote. Despite the Virginia Supreme Court’s ruling, McAuliffe has vowed to sign 200,000 individual restoration orders to ensure those people can vote in November. In the spirit of democracy, I pray that the Virginia General Assembly will heed the cry of the electorate and also do the right thing.
There is power in redemption for all of us. The citizens who have done their time and paid their debt to society deserve a voice in the country they salute. Lawmakers in Virginia and across the country still struggling with disenfranchisement should take note.
The Rev. Richard Cizik is president of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good. He lives in Fredericksburg.