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Disenfranchisement News: Virginia GOP files suit to block 200K people from voting

June 16, 2016
Virginia GOP says the governor's executive order to restore voting rights to 200K people is unconstitutional, D.C. makes voting easier in jail, and more in Disenfranchisement News.

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Virginia GOP files suit to block 200K people with felony convictions from voting

Republican leaders of Virginia’s House and Senate filed suit with the state Supreme Court in a bid to reverse Governor Terry McAuliffe’s executive order that would restore voting rights to an estimated 200,000 people who have completed their felony sentence. The privately funded suit alleges that the governor’s executive order exceeded his authority under the Commonwealth’s constitution when he restored voting rights en masse instead of individually. Republicans have asked for an expedited review in order to prevent newly registered individuals from voting in the November election.

In an interview with The Marshall Project, A.E. Dick Howard, professor at the University of Virginia School of Law and constitutional expert who helped draft the current version of the state’s constitution, said the high court was unlikely to rule in the Republicans favor. Gov. McAuliffe consulted Howard before issuing the executive order. Howard told the governor “he clearly has authority,” under Article V Section 12 of the Constitution, to remove political “disabilities from classes of people, as well as to act in individual cases.” Howard also said that the governor’s order “is irrevocable by any other authority,” and someone who has had their voting rights restored can only lose that right as result of a future felony conviction.

In a commentary in the Philadelphia Inquirer, The Sentencing Project’s Executive Director, Marc Mauer, recently applauded Gov. McAuliffe’s historic executive order, and argued that voting is a fundamental right of democracy that should include all individuals, including those with felony convictions. “Voting rights are determined based on citizenship, not character,” said Mauer. “By extending the right to vote to people who have made mistakes, we can both build a more inclusive democracy and make our communities safer.”

D.C. Board of Elections makes voting accessible in jail

Staff from the D.C. Board of Elections went to the D.C. Jail and to the Correctional Treatment Facility to allow eligible individuals to cast an absentee ballot for D.C.’s June 14th primary. Washington, D.C. is one of only a handful of jurisdictions to facilitate voting in jail. The program was started in 2004 primarily due to the efforts of Charles Sullivan of Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE), who advocated for onsite absentee voting programs. The Board of Elections also distributes voter guides with information on the candidates prior to voting day. “The vast majority of the 700,000 people in local jails are eligible to vote since they are either awaiting trial or serving time on a misdemeanor conviction, but not a felony,” said  Marc Mauer. “But there are only a handful of jails in the country where there’s any ongoing effort to make the voting process accessible to this group of people, so the District of Columbia is a leader in this regard.”

In Denver, the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition has recently announced a partnership with the city’s elections division and the sheriff’s department to also start a program helping eligible individuals vote while incarcerated.

Iowa Governor streamlines application for restoration of rights

Governor Terry Branstad announced a new streamlined application for restoration of voting rights for Iowans with felony convictions. Civil liberties advocates argued that the former 29-question application asked too many invasive questions and was difficult to fill out. The new application has 13 questions and removes a number of burdensome requirements, such as information on court-ordered alimony or child support payments and a history of filing state and federal tax returns. Yet advocates say the small improvements to the application are not enough. “We fear that most citizens will still feel they need the assistance of an attorney to complete this application, and most will simply be deterred,” said ACLU of Iowa Executive Director, Jeremy Rosen.

Branstad’s communications director, Ben Hammes, said the decision to streamline the application was not connected to the state Supreme Court hearings on Iowa’s strict disenfranchisement laws.

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