Day #092: Felon voting rights

Are felons citizens?

Inspired by Michael Bierut’s 100 Day Project, 100 Days to a Better RVA strives to introduce and investigate unique ideas to improving the city of Richmond. View the entire project here and the intro here.

  • Idea: A constitutional amendment by the Virginia General Assembly and more unilateral action by Governor McAuliffe restoring the voting rights of disenfranchised felons.
  • Difficulty: 4 — Good governance on behalf of the Republican led General Assembly requires a decision that is bad politics.

Happy Election Day! Today, thousands of Richmonders and Virginians will head to the polls to peacefully overthrow the government. Today, thousands of Richmonders and Virginians will be unable to participate because they are disenfranchised felons. It’s time for the Virginia General Assembly to pass a state constitutional amendment to reform felony disenfranchisement, and it’s time for Governor McAuliffe to unilaterally build on changes made in 2013 and 2014.

In 2010, 5.85 million felons lacked the right to vote in the United States. Roughly 75% of them were no longer in prison. One in thirteen African Americans were barred from the polls because of a felony conviction. If a fraction of the 827,000 disenfranchised felons in Florida in 2000 had the right to vote, it’s not unreasonable to think that President Gore would have been sworn into office in January of 2001. This is a serious issue, and Virginia is one of the worst offenders. Because of demographics, this disproportionately impacts Richmond.

Virginia law

In 2010, 450,000 Virginians, 350,000 who were no longer in prison, were unable to vote. Virginia had the second-highest rate of felony disenfranchisement in the country with 7.3% of people disenfranchised and 20% of African Americans barred from voting–but progress has been made. At the time, Felons could only regain their voting rights through direct restoration from the governor.

Permanent change in Virginia can only happen through a constitutional amendment which requires action by the General Assembly. With the majority Republican body refusing to entertain any changes for disenfranchised felons, change has been limited to unilateral action by the governor.

Governor McDonnell began restoring rights to non-violent felons at the end of incarceration, parole, and probation in May of 2013.1 “Non-violent” is a bit of a misnomer; violent crime in this case includes drug distribution, drug manufacturing, crimes against a minor, and election law offenses.

Governor McAuliffe removed the application process for non-violent/less-serious felons in June of 2014 while setting up a cumbersome system for rights restoration for violent felons. The process includes a five year waiting period from imprisonment, vastly differing crime-free requirements including two years without a misdemeanor for non-violent felons and five years without a misdemeanor for violent felons, and a requirement that all fees be paid.2

Unfortunately, the process is only automatic for those leaving incarceration or under supervised probation. The state has understandably had difficulty contacting and working through paperwork for hundreds of thousands of individuals and the Rights Restoration Office is suffering from huge budget cut-backs. ThinkProgress did a great job chronicling this on October 24th. At this point, it’s tough to tell how many felons still lack voting rights in Virginia.

Are felons citizens?

Voting is one of the most fundamental rights of citizenship.

Disenfranchisement’s roots go back to the punishment of “civil death” in Ancient Greece and Rome. This evokes patriotic images of Jefferson and Madison building this country on a foundation of classicism, but disenfranchisement didn’t become popular in America until the Reconstruction era. Furthermore, its biggest proponents were in the South.

Even if disenfranchisement wasn’t racially motivated (it was), felony disenfranchisement does not improve society or prisons. It isn’t a powerful deterrent and it doesn’t enhance the incapacitation of prisoners. It is a punishment of felons, but that punishment comes after the “civil death” element of prison.

Most importantly it doesn’t help with rehabilitation. Studies in Florida suggest the restoration of voting rights decreases recidivism.

Shadd Maruna (2001: 7) contends, desistance is only possible when ex-offenders “develop a coherent pro-social identity for themselves,” In fact, it is possible that developing a self-concept as a pro-social conforming citizen may be a key mechanism linking adultwork and family roles with desistance from crime (Uggen, Manza, and Behrens 2003).

After imprisonment, felons’ property rights are restored, the right to work and live in an area is restored, and in some cases even the right to serve in the military. In 2007, the US Army issues 511 felony waivers including 106 for burglars and 43 convicted of aggravated assault.

The United States considers felons citizens while simultaneously allowing states to remove one of their most fundamental rights of citizenship because of laws with racist roots.


It’s time for the General Assembly to work toward a constitutional amendment. For as much progress as has been made in the past 18 months, it can all be effortlessly and instantly reversed by the next governor.

A wide variety of policies exist from the possibility of losing the right to vote forever (which includes Virginia) to Maine and Vermont who allow prisoners to vote. Virginia should fall in line with the 13 states and Washington DC who automatically reinstate voting rights upon the end of incarceration.

This would maintain temporary “civil death” and it would limit candidates’ abilities to pander to prisoners, but it would enhance rehabilitation.

Policy progress has been made nationally, but that progress hasn’t made a dent in disenfranchisement because of the explosion of incarceration over the last 40 years. The number one way to fight for felon voting rights, is to decrease our world-leading incarceration rate.

But it’s tough to get people who don’t know criminals-and don’t ever plan on being criminals-to think about, much less support reform. No politician ever gained political capital by “being soft on crime.” Successful candidates are ultimately representations of the desires of their constituents. When a massive group is systematically excluded from having any say in the process, their desires and beliefs are systematically neglected.

Furthermore, laws are the result of a social contract shaped by society. If laws undesired by society disenfranchise opponents of that law, then a vicious feedback loop can be created. If that law predates universal suffrage, then it violates the 14th amendment.

The biggest hurdle may be complacency. When you’re in last place, it feels good to pass a few people, but it’s important not to get too excited if you’re still behind 90% of everyone else. Governor McAuliffe deserves credit for change, but Virginia still has some of the strictest laws in the country. It will be easy to check a campaign promise off of the list, but in order for Richmond and Virginia to be a better place, felons who have served their time and are trying to rejoin society should be given the most fundamental right of citizenship.

Love this idea? Think it’s terrible? Have one that’s ten times better? Head over to the 100 Days to a Better RVA Facebook page and join in the conversation.

Photo by: carnagenyc

  1. Ironically, Governor McDonnell was en route to being the first governor in Virginia history to be convicted of a felony. 
  2. Which sounds reasonable but is made difficult by foregone work while in prison and lack of work prospects after prison. 
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Aaron Williams

Aaron Williams loves music, basketball (follow @rvaramnews!), family, learning, and barbecue sauce.

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