There are 5.8 million Americans who will be barred from voting this year, because their home states deny felons that fundamental right. Lately, there have been efforts to reduce that absurd statistic. In Maryland, the legislature restored voting rights for felons who served their prison sentences by overturning their governor’s veto. And last Friday, by executive order, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe restored suffrage for more than 200,000 people – a good start toward reinstating full citizenship to 47 percent of the American prison population serving time for non-violent drug offenses. Call it a liberating blast of fresh democracy – even though three states (Florida, Kentucky and Iowa) still bar felons from voting for life. Maine and Vermont occupy the other extreme, allowing felons to vote even as they serve their time. And many states, like New Jersey, restore suffrage only after felons have served their full sentences – including prison time, parole and probation.
Even New Jersey’s law is too restrictive, however: If someone is out of jail on parole, how does society justify giving his back his car keys, his property, his tax bill, and his freedom – yet still deprive him of the right to choose his representatives?
It is more vexing for probationers: Voting is a right – as asserted in the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 – so why can’t non-violent offenders who have never been incarcerated participate in democracy? Is disenfranchisement really a criminal sanction?
So McAuliffe’s action is significant, and a reminder that felon disfranchisement has racist origins. After the Civil War, the Southern states passed the Black Codes to deprive the freedman from voting, which meant they would routinely enforce “crimes” such as loitering and moral turpitude, permitting the subjugation of former slaves.