It's Time to Enfranchise People With Felonies

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe was right to restore voting rights to Virginians convicted of felonies. Other governors and legislatures should follow his lead.

Using his executive power on Friday, McAuliffe restored voting rights to 200,000 persons who had been convicted of felonies in Virginia. The Old Dominion has one of the nation's most restrictive felony voting laws, disenfranchising one out of every five African-American voters, according to the Sentencing Project.

There's an ugly history to the expansion of felony disenfranchisement laws, often tracing themselves to post-Civil War efforts to maintain white primacy. Virginia, for example, has prohibited persons convicted of felonies from voting since the Civil War, expanding such prohibitions in 1902 along with implementing poll taxes and literacy tests. Governor McAuliffe's staff uncovered a 1906 report quoting a Virginia Senator stating that such policies "would eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this State in less than five years."

When I ran Washington, D.C.'s juvenile justice agency, some of the youth in our facilities were eligible to vote. They were over age 18 and "adjudicated delinquent" -- a not convicted of a felony -- so they retained their voting rights.

Believing that it was our job to help them participate as full-fledged members of society, we helped them organize a mayoral debate in our youth correctional facility, with the youth moderating and asking all the questions. The young people took the process very seriously, discussing the election extensively before and afterwards, and taking a straw poll on who won the debate. Afterwards, most of the youth who were eligible to vote registered and most who registered, requested absentee ballots.

More than a half dozen mayoral candidates attended the debate, including D.C.'s eventual Mayor, Adrian Fenty. Most remained in the facility interacting with the youth long after the debate ended, providing them with an understanding of incarcerated youth rarely afforded to elected officials.

When I was Commissioner of New York City probation, people under our supervision were eligible to vote -- New York is one of 19 states where that is the case. We actively encouraged them to register and vote, putting up signage throughout our offices and making voter registration materials prominently available. When voter registration deadlines approached, probation officers were instructed to remind people on their caseloads to register.

Both jurisdictions were overwhelmingly Democratic, so this had nothing to do with partisan politics. Rather, we felt that civic engagement of those under our supervision was important to help them occupy their roles as fully enfranchised citizens. In turn, this helped our staff view those in their charge as individuals engaging in their civic duty, rather than merely criminals to be watched.

Some have suggested that, rather than reinstating voting rights en masse, states should create mechanisms that restore rights to those convicted of felonies one at a time as they prove they are worthy to vote. Nothing in my time in government has convinced me that the government has the capacity -- or should be vested with the authority -- to determine who is vote-worthy.

In 2014, the National Academy of Sciences, the nation's premier research institute, issued a report on the causes and consequences of America's massive increase in incarceration over the last four decades. One of their primary recommendations was that "the conditions and consequences of punishments for crime... should not be so severe or so enduring as to violate an individual's fundamental status as a member of society."

There's no public safety justification for stripping people of their right to vote. In fact, it's more likely that exercising the right to vote contributes to normalcy and law abiding behavior than the opposite.

Whenever our nation has denied entire classes of people of the right to vote -- as it did with African-Americans and women -- we've ended up on the wrong side of history. It's time other states followed Virginia's lead and re-enfranchised people with felony convictions.