Felon Voting Rights: A Boon for GOP?

The Virginia governor's bold move to restore rights may help bring black voters to the Republican Party.

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell speaks during the 2012 Republican National Convention. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell speaks during the 2012 Republican National Convention. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

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Jealous said that the governor’s executive order could affect between “100,000 and 200,000 people,” an estimate partly derived from a database that lists offenders up to 1995. “About 100,000 are nonviolent offenders. The assumption is, there’s a large number of people who were not in the database” before then, he said. More than 350,000 Virginians are barred from voting, according to a January report by the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reforming incarceration and sentencing policy.

Jealous was baffled by the reluctance of Tim Kaine, the former Democratic governor, to adopt a similar plan while in office. “It wasn’t quite clear what his reason was,” Jealous said. “The flaw of politicians again and again is that they know the right thing to do, they wrestle with their consciences and they win. And the rest of us lose. [McDonnell] put principle above partisan self-interest, and that’s what so remarkable about this action. It’s a very big deal.”

Jealous envisions a heartening scenario for the GOP if other pols similarly step out on faith. “What’s in this for the Republican Party and a Republican politician is the possibility of getting a larger share of votes from the African-American community,” Jealous said.

“A Republican presidential candidate who can assure black voters that [he or she has] courage when it comes to civil rights and [is] willing to step out could pick up 15 percent more of the black vote than [GOP nominee Mitt] Romney received,” Jealous said. “That’s what at stake here for this governor.

“One issue does not a general commitment prove,” Jealous added. “He would have to do more, have to show more. But there’s real potential.”

Virginia’s Corrosive Legacy

The Commonwealth of Virginia has long marched to its own drummer on felons’ rights. In 1870, after the passage of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, which guaranteed the right to vote, the Old Dominion went in the opposite direction, ushering in the state’s felon-disenfranchisement legacy by amending the Virginia Constitution to deny voting rights to any convicted felon.

Until McDonnell’s action, Virginia was one of two states in the country (Kentucky is the other) imposing a lifetime ban on restoration of citizen rights to felons. With the governor’s sweeping changes, the state is pushing back on a sad legacy.

In the past, felony-disenfranchisement laws in Virginia weren’t just tolerated — they were strategized, usually with race as the motivator. Carter Glass, a Lynchburg newspaper editor and a state delegate to the 1901 Constitutional Convention, wrote about one such measure in the convention minutes, almost wistfully: “This plan … will eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this State in less than five 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.”