When the votes are tallied in Virginia’s race for governor on Tuesday, over 300,000 citizens will be missing from the voting rolls – including 20% of the state’s black population. The reason is not low turnout or voter ID, but a growing and often invisible barrier to voting that is upending elections around the country. Over 5 million Americans are barred from voting because they have criminal records, according to a report this year from the Sentencing Project. The crackdown on ballot access is so intense, a majority of states actually bar former convicts from voting even after they are released from prison. If voting rights were restored to those former inmates, about 4.3 million more Americans would be able to vote. That is over three times margin of victory in the last House midterm elections.
“You have this chunk of voters that’s not there,” explains NBC News political director Chuck Todd. “When you see the decisions that have been made on this issue – and a lot of voting access issues – it’s clear that political partisans are operating on what’s best for their own party’s cause, period,” says Todd.
Researchers have found that restrictions on voting by ex-felons “tend to take more votes” from Democrats – and that universal suffrage could change the outcome in Senate and presidential elections.
Focusing only on the electoral impact, however, can distract from the fundamental rights at stake.
“If you care about this issue – and you believe this issue of felony rights is about full restoration of rights after you’ve paid your penalty to society,” says Todd, “then [put aside] these studies. Who cares the political impact – it shouldn’t matter.”