Claire Guthrie Gastañaga is the executive director of the ACLU of Virginia.
Florida voters made voting rights history on Election Day when they chose to repeal and replace the state’s constitutional limit on voting rights of people who have committed felonies. Their decision restored the right to vote to 1.4 million people.
This is an amazing step forward. Florida’s action leaves Kentucky, Iowa and Virginia as the only states that still impose on any person convicted of any felony a lifetime ban on voting. In Virginia, that ban can be lifted only by the governor acting alone using whatever rules the governor chooses to apply.
Recent Virginia governors have expanded the “rules” for restoration of voting rights; then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) restored voting rights to more than 170,000 people. It remains true, however, that, under the state constitution, a Virginian who has been convicted of a felony may never get back the right to vote.
It is past time for Virginia to amend our constitution to remove this Jim Crow-era limit — a limit intended to block previously enslaved black people from voting. It is time to end government’s control on our right to vote and to amend our constitution simply to say: Every person 18 or over, is a citizen, a Virginia resident and who registers shall have the fundamental right to vote in the commonwealth, and such right shall not be abridged by law.
Voting is a cornerstone of our democracy. So much so that the right to vote is mentioned more times than any other in the U.S. Constitution. Yet, there is no right-to-vote guarantee in it or in the Virginia Constitution. It is time we made clear that the vote is basic to citizenship, the main building block of civic life, and it belongs to the people — not the government they elect.
In Virginia, it should no longer be okay to allow a governor or the government to decide who gets to vote or to privilege some voters over others. Every person in Virginia — including those in jails or prisons, and their families — is governed by the same laws. It is only right that everyone who meets the qualifications of age, citizenship and residency has the same opportunity to choose who represents them in crafting those laws.
Rather than focus on the questions of whether and when someone deserves to get back the right to vote, as we have for decades, we need to oppose the very idea that government should be able to take away this fundamental right in the first place. We must resist any effort to tinker with the current lifetime ban on voting by amending it to separate people convicted of felonies into politically defined classes, or to amend the language to constitutionalize barriers to voting such as required repayment of court costs, fines and fees — essentially a modern-day poll tax. All citizens should be able to use their right to vote. Full citizenship means having a voice in government.
The only answer is to enact a concise constitutional amendment that repeals the current lifetime ban on voting for people convicted of felonies and inserts an affirmative right to vote in Virginia that cannot be abridged by law.
Amending the constitution is a difficult process in our state. A proposal first must pass both the House of Delegates and the Senate. Then, after an intervening election of the House, the identical wording of the proposed amendment must pass both chambers a second time. Then, Virginia voters must approve the amendment in a statewide referendum.
This is a long process, but it is one we can and must begin during next year’s legislative session. Doing so will ensure it could reach the ballot and Virginia voters by November 2020.
Voting is how we decide who governs us. Voting is not a disposable tool for elected officials to use to decide who gets to choose them.
The right to vote is fundamental to our democracy. It must be treated as irrevocable. Politicians should not be able to use the right to vote to reward or punish people. The right to vote should be treated in the same respect as other fundamental rights in our democracy, such as freedom of religion and speech.
It is time to act in Virginia to ensure that the right to vote is guaranteed for everyone.