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Virginia governor removes modern day “poll tax”
Governor Terry McAuliffe recently announced that individuals with felony convictions will no longer have to pay outstanding court costs before they are eligible to have their voting rights restored. “These men and women will still be required to pay their costs and fees, but their court debts will no longer serve as a financial barrier to voting, just as poll taxes did for so many years in Virginia,” said Governor McAuliffe. He also announced that people who have their rights restored will now be able to include that on their official police record.
Virginia has historically been among the most restrictive states in the nation in restoring voting rights to people with felony convictions, which disproportionately impacts Virginia’s black residents. According to a recent publication by civil rights history scholar Helen Gibson, Virginia’s felony disenfranchisement laws can be “traced back to 19th century attempts to undercut the voting strengths of African Americans.” As of 2010, over 20 percent of Virginia’s voting-age black population could not vote due to a felony conviction.
McAuliffe’s administration has taken a number of steps to streamline the process for voter restoration, including reducing the waiting period before applying for people convicted of violent crimes from five years to three, and removing drug crimes from the list of felony offenses that require a waiting period. In his first 17 months in office, Governor McAuliffe has restored voting rights to more than 8,000 people, more than any previous governor in their full four-year term. Seventy-one percent of those people have already registered to vote.
The ACLU of Virginia, which had petitioned both McAuliffe’s and former Governor McDonnell’s administration to remove the requirement to pay court debts, says they are working hard to place a constitutional amendment for automatic restoration on the 2018 ballot.
Hillary Clinton calls for sweeping voting rights reforms
In a recent speech at Texas Southern University, 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton called for sweeping voting rights reforms, including automatic voter registration when citizens turn 18, expanded in-person early voting, and restoring voting rights to people with felony convictions after they serve their sentence. Clinton called out several of her likely Republican opponents for supporting restrictive voting policies, including Jeb Bush for his role in conducting a “deeply flawed” purge of voters with felony convictions before the 2000 presidential election.
At Texas Southern University, Clinton received the Barbara Jordan Leadership Award, named for the pioneering civil rights leader and African American lawmaker. “Forty years after Barbara Jordan fought to extend the Voting Rights Act, its heart has been ripped out,” Clinton said. “I wish we could hear her speak up for the student who has to wait hours for his or her right to vote; for the grandmother who’s turned away from the polls because her driver’s license expired; for the father who’s done his time and paid his debt to society but still hasn’t gotten his rights back.”
Voter turnout among people with felony convictions
In the Quarterly Journal of Political Science, Marc Meredith of the University of Pennsylvania and Michael Morse of Stanford University investigate how the restoration of voting rights affects the political participation of people with felony convictions. Meredith and Morse analyzed data from Iowa, where in 2005 Governor Vilsack had restored voting rights to all upon completion of sentence, but was reversed in 2011 by Governor Branstad to require an individual application. As expected, the data show an increase in voter turnout for people with felony convictions between 2005-2011, and then a decrease after 2011. The researchers found that misinformation about the state’s current voting rights policy and bureaucratic procedures in applying for restoration were significant barriers to voting for people with felony convictions.
Meredith and Morse then compared Iowa’s data to Maine, which does not disenfranchise any of its residents with felony convictions, and Rhode Island, which aggressively campaigns to register people with felony convictions after they are released from prison. Although the researchers found higher voter registration rates in Maine and Rhode Island, they did not find that people with felony convictions vote at substantially higher rates. “These findings suggest that although notification of voting rights and automatic restoration policies can improve ex-felon political participation, misinformation and bureaucratic procedures are not the only reason why enfranchised ex-felons vote at lower rates than demographically similar non-felons.”
Seminal works on felony disenfranchisement and political participation by Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza may have substantially overestimated the number of people who would vote absent felony disenfranchisement laws, say Meredith and Morse.