On a night of Democratic victories, one of the most significant wins came in Virginia, where the party held onto the governor’s mansion. Democratic governor-elect Ralph Northam’s victory will enable him to expand voting rights to disenfranchised people and exert some control over the redistricting process.
The election had high stakes for voting rights. Virginia strips people of their right to vote if they are convicted of a felony, and those rights can only be restored by the governor. Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) moved aggressively to restore rights to more than 168,000 former felons ― a policy Northam has said he is proud of and will continue.
In 2016, the nonprofit Sentencing Project estimated there were 508,680 people in Virginia who remained disenfranchised because of a felony conviction, meaning hundreds of thousands more could benefit from Northam’s policies. More than 1 in 5 people disenfranchised in the commonwealth because of a felony conviction were African-American, according to the organization.
“We have been working on rights restoration for 10 years and we will continue the fight for a permanent end to this racist Jim Crow era relic,” Tram Nguyen, co-executive director of New Virginia Majority, a group that helps former felons get their voting rights back, said in a statement.
“This includes pushing legislation to stem the unjust system of mass incarceration and to change the Virginia constitution toward automatic restoration of voting rights, and more. Based on our work on the ground, in the communities, enthusiasm around this issue has only increased,” she added.
Expanded voting rights restoration will benefit people like LaVaughn Williams and Brianna Ross, who are in their 50s and lost their right to vote decades ago, when they were convicted of felonies. Both women had their rights restored in the last year and voted for the first time in their lives on Tuesday, something they said made them feel like equal citizens.
“If you had asked me maybe a year and a half, almost two years ago, I would’ve said ‘No,’ I didn’t never think I would vote,” Williams said on Tuesday after voting.
“Government and governors have come to the conclusion that even though we have not done a lot of good things in our lifetime, as far as I’m concerned, they have decided that they will put those past mistakes in the past and give us that second chance,” she said. “That’s all any person that’s an ex-felon can hope for, that second chance. Me getting my rights back is that second chance.”
That’s all any person that’s an ex-felon can hope for, that second chance. Me getting my rights back is that second chance. LaVaughn Williams
Northam’s victory will also benefit Democrats long after his term ends, because he’ll have the authority to veto future electoral maps that the legislature draws after the 2020 Census that will be in effect for the next decade. Republicans had complete control over the redistricting process and drew maps to their advantage after the 2010 Census. Had they won the governor’s mansion this week, they could have done that again.
The races in 2019 will determine which party has control over the redistricting process, but now, Democrats are guaranteed veto power over the maps for the first time since 1991. Before Tuesday, Republicans controlled the commonwealth’s House of Delegates, but Democrats made considerable gains. It remains unclear which party will have control as votes are still being tallied.
“Last night made clear just how badly Republicans gerrymandered Virginia in 2011. Despite a massive Democratic wave, the majority in the House of Delegates remains up in the air,” stated former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who is now chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.
“Ralph Northam’s victory ensures that, for the first time since 1991, Virginia will have a Democratic governor with veto power over redistricting,” Holder added. “But more than that, Virginians will have a governor who is committed to drawing fair maps that reflect the diversity and compassion of its citizens and I look forward to working with him in that effort.”
Voting rights became an important issue in the race after Northam’s Republican opponent, Ed Gillespie, used highly misleading television advertisements to criticize the policy of restoring voting rights to former felons. Gillespie also personally oversaw the Republican effort to win state legislators and draw electoral boundaries to the party’s advantage in 2010. The high stakes attracted attention from voting groups like Let America Vote and Holder’s National Democratic Redistricting Committee.
“Ralph Northam’s win tonight is a victory for every Virginian, a victory for the Democratic movement resisting President Trump’s disastrous administration and a victory for the protection of voting rights everywhere,” Jason Kander, the former Missouri secretary of state and president of Let America Vote, said in a statement.
“Ralph made his defense of voting rights a campaign priority,” Kander said. “Virginians took notice, which is why they came from all over the commonwealth to join Let America Vote and many other groups to get out the vote.”
The 2018 elections will be critical for the Democratic Party, however. “As we look toward elections next year, we must remain focused on key races, up and down the ballot, that will ensure Democrats have a seat at the table during the next redistricting process,” Holder said.