Did Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe just send a sobering message about the commonwealth’s criminal justice system? Logical deduction says he did.
The justification given for McAuliffe’s blanket restoration of civil rights for felons is provided in a recent Richmond Times-Dispatch article:
The McAuliffe administration has particularly emphasized the disproportionate impact on African-Americans [of the state constitutional provision denying ex-felons the right to vote], saying the life disenfranchisement for felons has roots in post-Civil War attempts to suppress black votes.
As lawyers say, this is the gravamen of their argument.
Despite the post-Civil War assertions, the 1830 Virginia Constitution — pre-Civil War — said, “any person convicted of any infamous offense” cannot vote.
The term “infamous offense” is legalese, covering many felonies.
In 1830s Virginia, only white men — and not all of them, because of a means test — were allowed to vote. This constitutional provision wasn’t an anti-black measure. It only applied to white people not otherwise disenfranchised.
McAuliffe’s staff is correct in pointing to Virginia’s 1902 constitutional rewrite as a pro-segregation document written to depress African American voter participation.
The comparable disenfranchisement clause in the 1902 constitution said the following citizens lose their right to vote: “persons convicted … of treason, or any felony, bribery, petit larceny, obtaining money or property under false pretences, embezzlement, forgery, or perjury.” This list seems to include crimes not considered an “infamous offense” back in 1830.
But the 1902 constitution also put in place a poll tax and literacy tests. It encouraged economic and KKK-style intimidation. Segregationist registrars refused to enroll African American citizens. Few African Americans were allowed to register to vote, despite the 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
Yet the Virginians most affected by the 1902 provision were, again, poorer white men; women were still denied the vote.
Today, Virginia operates under its 1971 constitution. The comparable felon disenfranchisement clause now reads, “[n]o person who has been convicted of a felony shall be qualified to vote” unless his rights have been restored by the governor.
We don’t believe the governor had this power in 1830.
Bottom line: The original felon disenfranchisement policy applied to white men only, and was not an anti-black racial policy.
The governor’s claim of a “disproportionate impact on African Americans” is deductively rooted in impact analysis, not original intent.
Let’s extrapolate McAuliffe’s policy position.
Assume the pool of former inmates is “disproportionately African American.” Logically, this result can only be true if the overall pool of felons has a similar, group-based disproportionality.
By logical extension, this can only happen if racial bias pollutes Virginia’s criminal-justice system.
Deductively, then, claiming the system creates a “disproportionately” African American pool of former inmates is also saying the system disproportionately convicts African Americans of felonies. That’s Logic 101.
So the bias referenced in the RTD quote occurred on the front side of the criminal-justice process — marking one a felon — not after the process is over, when the individual has completed his or her sentence and now wants to vote.
The right to vote is fundamental. But so, too, is the constitutional mandate that government cannot deny anyone life or liberty based on racial basis.
As we have shown, one cannot logically say the system has created a “disproportionately African-American” pool of formerly incarcerated Virginians and also claim the system making them felons is unbiased.
Such deductive reasoning applies to death sentences in particular – halted at one time by the Supreme Court because of racial bias. It extends to felony convictions overall, and, indeed, criminal convictions for African Americans in general, and probably other minorities.
We write today only in the classic journalist obligation, not in vogue today, of following the government’s argument to its logical conclusion. It deserves a rebirth.
Truth crushed to Earth will rise: If someone is serving jail time because of racial bias, then offering restoration of voting rights after serving an unjust sentence isn’t nearly enough.