“Unrepentant, unreformed, violent criminals.” Those are the words Ed Gillespie uses to describe many of the 168,000 Virginians who have had their civil rights restored by my administration. In an ad clearly-designed to scare and confuse voters, Gillespie implies that giving voting rights back to people who have made mistakes and served their time somehow makes Virginia less safe. This is deeply misleading and the lowest point yet in a Republican campaign that has been based entirely on fear, division, and Trump-style dog whistle politics.
I truly believe that if Mr. Gillespie understood the history of felon disenfranchisement in Virginia and across the nation, or took the time to meet the people he is using as political footballs, he wouldn’t feel so comfortable exploiting them for political gain.
When I took office Virginia was an outlier in its treatment of returning citizens. Unlike 40 other states that provide automatic restoration for individuals after they serve their time, the Commonwealth disenfranchised its residents for life. For generations, the policy of felon disenfranchisement had been used to suppress the voting rights of African Americans. That’s not conjecture ― it’s a part of our historical record.
The policy of felon disenfranchisement had been used to suppress the voting rights of African Americans. That’s not conjecture ― it’s a part of our historical record.
In 1902, Virginia’s constitution was amended to expand the policy of felon disenfranchisement and to add literacy tests and a poll tax. Discussing these changes, Virginia State Senator Carter Glass said,
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.
So when our administration began the process of restoring the rights of thousands of former felons who had served their time and returned to their communities, we recognized that we were confronting an historic injustice intended to suppress African American voices. We also knew that many forces, such as those that led Ed Gillespie to run his latest ad, would oppose our actions vigorously. However, we knew that this step was the right thing to do for Virginia. So we fought the politically motivated lawsuits and legislative attacks, and we fought divisive and misleading rhetoric to give more people a second chance at citizenship than any administration in American history.
Since my order last year, not a day goes by that someone doesn’t come up and thank me for restoring their rights. They often tell me that it changed their lives or that it gave them a renewed sense of hope. These are Virginians who have reentered society seeking to build better lives. Many of them waited years, sometimes decades, to become whole members of our society again. Many have broken down in tears as I signed their restorations on what many have told me was the best day of their lives.
Yes, these men and women have made mistakes. But they have served their time in accordance with the sentence of a judge and jury...
Yes, these men and women have made mistakes. But they have served their time in accordance with the sentence of a judge and jury and they have returned back into society to make the most of their second chance. These people are parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters. They pay taxes and send their children to our schools. If they’ve repaid their debt to society, they have earned the right to have a voice in their communities once again.
In 2009, Republican nominee and future Governor Bob McDonnell campaigned on restoring voting rights to those who had served their time. In 2013, my opponent was the sitting Attorney General of Virginia, Ken Cuccinelli. While we disagreed on many issues, both of us presented plans to restore voting rights to felons who had served their time. Until Ed Gillespie brought Trump-style divisive campaigning to Virginia, restoration of rights was generally a bipartisan issue.
If Ed Gillespie were elected, he would be duty-bound to raise his hand and pledge to serve all Virginians to the best of his ability – even the people he suggests are less worthy of citizenship. Ed’s ad suggests that rather than continue the progress that we have achieved, he would seek to undo our efforts and reinstate these archaic and discriminatory policies.
On behalf of those men and women and all Virginians, I hope he will stop using these 168,000 Virginians as pawns in divisive attack ads and get out and actually meet some of them. Maybe hearing their stories will change his mind about dragging Virginia back into a dark history that we dare not repeat.