The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A backward march on voting rights

Hand Of A Prisoner (Bigstock)

Denying voting rights to people who have served their prison sentences was an outdated, discriminatory vestige of our nation's Jim Crow past. Yet a measure recently introduced in Virginia's legislature would make it harder for this group to vote. A constitutional amendment proposed by Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) would perpetuate our racist past into the commonwealth's future.

Norment’s amendment would make Virginia’s archaic voting ban more restrictive than the Jim Crow constitution Virginia adopted in 1902. While the amendment appears to call for the restoration of rights of certain people, it would create significant hurdles for some and institute an irreversible lifetime ban for others.

The measure also could open the door to punishing even low-level offenses by imposing a lifetime status as a second-class citizen for thousands of Virginians. The result would be that people with past felony convictions would have no say in elections for decades after they’ve paid their debt to society.

This proposal is troubling in its own right. Even more worrying is that this appears to be a part of a concerted effort by partisan officials to manipulate the right to vote for their own gain, predominantly hurting Virginians of color, the poor and the elderly.

Norment's proposed amendment is widely viewed as a politicized response to the ongoing fight in Virginia over the restoration of civil rights for people with past felony convictions. On April 22, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) signed an executive order restoring the rights of more than 206,000 people who had served time and completed any supervised release, such as probation or parole.

The rest of the story is well known by now to Virginians. After a partisan lawsuit overturned McAuliffe's order to restore voting rights, the governor simply complied with what the court said. This was followed by unsuccessful legal maneuvering trying to hold the governor in contempt.

The pattern here is clear: Opponents of voting rights are using the legal system to preserve a policy that makes it harder for some Americans to vote. This has been a well-known tactic throughout history for those who could not stop efforts to expand ballot access through the electoral or legislative process. In this case, opponents of voting rights understand that they are working against the will of Virginians. They don’t care.

The attempt to amend the constitution and the flurry of legal schemes are consistent with an opposition to the restoration of civil rights and using a legislative majority to undermine access to the ballot box.

In 2013, this same group passed a law requiring voter identification. While that law solves nothing — no documented case of in-person voter fraud exists in Virginia — it does make it harder to vote for thousands of people who do not possess photo identification. People of color and low-income earners are most likely to lack state-issued identification.

As a whole, this multipronged approach to tighten access to Virginia elections can lead to only one conclusion about the motivations of the individuals who are promoting it: Opponents of voting rights want to maintain their power by limiting whose voices count in deciding elections. Lower-turnout elections in Virginia usually favor Republicans. Therefore, the thinking goes, a policy approach that seeks to reduce the number of people eligible to vote can and should be interpreted as an effort to advance one party’s political interests.

McAuliffe welcomed people of all colors, creeds and party affiliations back to society at once. He urged politicians to go out and earn their votes by offering a vision to make their lives better. It is unfortunate that opponents of voting rights, who have an interest in keeping certain populations from voting, have responded by using every tool at their disposal to silence those Virginians’ voices. No political entity should seek to win elections by rigging the game instead of winning the argument.

The writer is executive director for Advancement Project’s national office.

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