Voter registration by felons and the deceased is nothing new in Virginia. In 1998, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, the investigative arm of the General Assembly, found that the State Board of Elections’ record-keeping was so poor that 11,221 felons and 1,480 dead people were registered to vote. Recent reports have the Voter Participation Center trolling in the same voter pool in its voter registration mailings. A Louisa County felon illegally registered and cast a ballot in the 2008 election after submitting a form she received from the Washington-based center. Other felons have fallen through the voter registration cracks. And Virginia’s voter registrars are caught in the middle. “The real question is, Do we have a perfect system? No, we don’t. Can we? Probably not. Is it an epidemic problem? No, it isn’t. But from my perspective, it should be zero tolerance,” said Chesterfield County Registrar Larry Haake. “If they change the law and let felons vote, I’m here for them. I don’t have a dog in that fight.”
According to a recently released study by The Sentencing Project, 350,000 Virginians and almost 6 million Americans cannot vote because of felony convictions. In Virginia, one in five adult African-Americans were without voting rights, the third-highest rate in the U.S. behind Florida and Kentucky. Virginia is one of only two states that require the governor to restore voting rights. The ACLU and some Virginia lawmakers have pushed for the automatic restoration of those rights after felons complete their sentences. Those efforts have gained little traction.
Felon disenfranchisement is rooted in Virginia’s historically documented effort to curtail the black vote, dating back to the 1870 ratification of the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed black men the right to vote. Virginia’s 1901-02 Constitutional Convention further crippled the black franchise by enacting poll taxes and literacy tests. That is the legacy Virginia perpetuates today.