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Disenfranchisement News: Virginia campaign ad attacks restoration of voting rights

November 02, 2017
Coming two weeks before the state’s gubernatorial election, Republican candidate Ed Gillespie released a video attacking Democratic candidate Ralph Northam’s efforts to aggressively expand voting rights to people with felony convictions.

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Virginia campaign ad attacks automatic restoration of voting rights for people with felony convictions

Coming two weeks before the state’s gubernatorial election, Republican candidate Ed Gillespie released a video attacking Democratic candidate Ralph Northam’s efforts to aggressively expand voting rights to people with felony convictions while serving as Lieutenant Governor. The campaign ad points to an individual whose voting rights were restored from a previous conviction shortly after being arrested on new charges for child pornography. According to The Atlantic, the video is reminiscent of the tough-on-crime campaign ads of the 1980s and 1990s: “If you vote for my opponent, your family will be less safe.”

The tone shifts in the second part of the video as Ed Gillespie explains that he is supportive of restoring voting rights for people who have completed their sentence, but that “Northam’s policy of automatic restoration of rights for unrepentant, unreformed, violent criminals is wrong.”

As Lieutenant Governor, Northam worked alongside Governor McAuliffe when he issued an executive order to automatically restore voting rights to 206,000 people with felony convictions en masse. The executive order was overturned by the state Supreme Court, but McAuliffe’s office has continued to restore voting rights individually to more than 168,000 people who have completed their sentence. Northam has called McAuliffe’s efforts to restore voting rights “one of our greatest feats,” and continues to center the issue in his campaign for governor.

Mississippi lawsuit: List of disenfranchising crimes was built on a legacy of racism

The Mississippi Center for Justice (MCJ) has filed a lawsuitthat seeks to end the lifetime voting ban for people convicted of certain crimes. The state’s 1890 Constitution established the initial list of disenfranchising crimes, which the lawsuit describes as “an integral part of the overall effort to prevent African-Americans in Mississippi from voting.” According to the lawsuit, drafters of the 1890 Constitution specifically choose crimes that they believed were committed disproportionately by African Americans. The lawsuit notes that this same Constitution also put in place other methods to specifically deny suffrage to blacks, such as poll taxes, literacy tests, and residency requirements—most of which have since been struck down, removed or weakened.

In 1950 and 1968, voters amended the Constitution to remove burglary from the list and to add rape and murder.  The lawsuit challenges only the original list of disenfranchising crimes from the 1890 Constitution, and does not seek to remove rape and murder from the list.

In 1998, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a similar suit brought by two incarcerated men seeking the right to vote. In the ruling, the Court acknowledged that “the state was motivated by a desire to discriminate against blacks,” but also said that both the 1950 and 1968 amendments “removed the discriminatory taint associated with the original version.”

MCJ disagrees with the Court’s ruling and argues that both of the state’s 1950 and 1968 legislative bodies were still “dominated by racist politicians” that passed other discriminatory legislation to avoid school desegregation (which the courts would later strike down). “At a time when many cities are removing civil war monuments that are vestiges of the doctrine of white supremacy, it is time we remove this vestige of white supremacy from Mississippi’s constitution. The right to vote should be exercised free of the legacy of racial discrimination,” said Reilly Morse, MCJ president.

Alabama: Investigation into county compliance with new voting rights law

Some election officials are still confused about who is allowed to vote after a new felony disenfranchisement law passed earlier this year, according to an investigation by AL.com. The bill that went into effect in August established for the first time a definitive list of crimes of “moral turpitude,” those that would result in a loss of voting rights. Before this list was established, the decision of who was allowed to vote varied from county to county and was essentially left up to local registrars.

Alabamians convicted of certain felony convictions can apply to have their voting rights restored after they have completed their prison, parole and probation sentence and have paid all fines and fees associated with their case. But advocates argue that requiring people to pay off their debt before they have their rights restored is a modern day poll tax. “The right to go to the polls and vote should never ever be dependent on one’s financial status,” says Randall Marshall, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama.

AL.com also reported that some counties were preventing people convicted of non-disenfranchising felonies from registering to vote because they had not paid off all of their outstanding legal fees. In an email responding to AL.com’sreport, Secretary of State John Merrill said that under the new law, individuals with non-disenfranchising felony convictions are eligible to vote regardless of whether they have completed their incarceration period or have any outstanding legal financial obligations. Merrill also said his office has been in touch with boards of registrars across the state to make sure they understand the new law. Yet in a follow-up reportAL.com found that some registrars still “were not entirely clear about the intricacies of a new voter disenfranchisement law and how it applies to their duties.”

 
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