The Virginia Supreme Court will hear arguments on Tuesday in a lawsuit that aims to strip the right to vote from more than 206,000 people, including one in five African-American adults in the state. If state lawmakers win, they will keep Virginia trapped in a shameful part of history: when former Confederate states passed felon disenfranchisement laws after Reconstruction to suppress black political power. Under Virginia’s Constitution, a person with a single felony offense can’t vote unless the governor restores his or her voting rights. This wasn’t always the case. Virginia’s 1870 Constitution, passed during Reconstruction, barred voting for those convicted of corruption or treason. But delegates to Virginia’s 1902 constitutional convention adopted new voting restrictions, including a ban on voting for all felons, poll taxes and a literacy test. They were not shy about their intentions. Virginia’s new constitution would “eliminate the darkey as a political factor,” explained Carter Glass, a convention delegate and, later as a United States senator, an author of the Glass-Steagall banking law. Their goal was to ensure “complete supremacy of the white race in the affairs of government.”
On April 22, Gov. Terry McAuliffe issued an executive order that restored voting rights to every ex-offender who had completed his or her sentence and been released from supervised probation or parole. “This action is right on the law,” he wrote, “and the right thing to do to move past this troubling chapter in Virginia’s history and write a new one of justice and equality for all Virginians.” The governor will also issue similar monthly orders to restore voting rights to felons who complete their sentences during the previous month.
His reward? A lawsuit by state legislators who argue that the governor can restore voting rights only on a case-by-case basis. Instead of competing for the votes of the newly enfranchised — more than 9,000 people with felony convictions have already registered to vote — these politicians would rather block them from the polls. They’d rather pick their voters than let the voters pick them.