By Benjamin Todd Jealous, President, NAACP
If we want to understand the importance of Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s recent voting rights reform, we need to look back all the way to the 1901-1902 Virginia Constitutional Convention.
The setting was Richmond, Virginia, June 1901. The Virginia Democratic Party had decided that African-Americans were gaining too much political clout after the Civil War. They forced a constitutional convention to reset the balance of power.
Virginia Delegate Carter Glass, a newspaper magnate and future United States senator, took to the podium to promote his plan for the new constitution. It was a classic example of the Jim Crow black codes, and it included a “felony disenfranchisement” law that barred people convicted of a felony from voting in the state.
Delegate Glass’s words that day still echo one hundred years later: “This plan will eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this State in less than 5 years, so that in no single county…will there be the least concern felt for the complete supremacy of the white race in the affairs of government.”
That plan eventually became part of Virginia’s Constitution and systematically disenfranchised voters of color for over a century. Until last week, the law still impacted more than 350,000 Virginians who were no longer incarcerated, including 190,000 black would-be voters.
But, Governor Bob McDonnell has bravely announced an executive action to grant automatic restoration of rights to people with non-violent felony convictions who have finished the terms of their sentence. With the stroke of a pen, he restored the right to vote to at least 100,000 Virginians, with many more to come.
McDonnell was not the first governor to learn about the ugly history of felony disenfranchisement in Virginia, but he was the first to act. He deserves credit for having courage in his convictions and taking action when his predecessors – and many of his party’s leaders in the Virginia state legislature – would not. His decision showed that restoration of voting rights is an American issue, and not a matter of partisan divide.
Now other states need to follow his lead. All but two states still practice some form of felony disenfranchisement, such as long waiting periods for those who have finished the terms of their sentence but still cannot vote. Florida, Kentucky, and Iowa all practice some form of permanent disenfranchisement. More than 4.4 million Americans who are no longer in jail or prison cannot vote due to felony disenfranchisement practices, and nearly half are black.
States like Virginia and Delaware are leading the way, but states like Florida are lagging behind; the Sunshine State still disenfranchises more than one million citizens each voting period. Moreover, Virginia could take the final step and introduce a constitutional amendment to remove felony disenfranchisement once and for all.
At the 1901 Virginia Constitutional Convention, one of the delegates claimed that Carter Glass’s plan was discriminatory. Glass replied, “Discrimination! Why that is precisely what we propose. That, exactly, is what this convention was elected for.”
Discrimination was the purpose of felony disenfranchisement in Virginia, and discrimination was the result. Other states may not have the same historic evidence of racist intent, but the effect – the systematic exclusion of people of color – is the same. Governor McDonnell’s voting rights reform last week was a victory for democracy and a victory for racial justice. But America still has a long way to go.