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Del. Ken Plum: Restoring Rights for Felons

by Del. Ken Plum — May 5, 2016 at 1:15 pm 15 Comments

Del. Ken Plum/File photoThis is a commentary by Del. Ken Plum (D), who represents Reston in Virginia’s General Assembly. It does not reflect the opinion of Reston Now.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe issued an executive order recently restoring civil rights of voting, serving on a jury, running for office, or being a notary public for persons who had been convicted of any and all felonies in the past but who have completed the terms of incarceration and who have completed any period of supervised release of probation and parole.

The restoration of civil rights after completing a sentence has been automatic in most states and routine in those that have had an application process. Virginia required an application before the Governor’s order, but the waiting list for acting on applications was notoriously long until Gov. McAuliffe came into office. His executive order will cover more than 200,000 people.

Most, including myself, have applauded the Governor’s action. As he described it, “it’s the right thing to do.” Other have accused him of playing politics. Actually, I believe the laws in Virginia that denied the right to vote to people who had served their sentences were political, and what the Governor did was to take some of the politics out of registering to vote. A review of history will explain what I mean.

Denying civil rights to persons who had been convicted and served their sentences was part of an effort during the early part of the 20th Century to limit the electorate in the state to white men who supported the political establishment. Jim Crow laws that were primarily aimed at black people required voters to write on a blank sheet of paper information that was required in the state constitution and to answer any question posed by election officials.

Additionally, in order to vote a person must have paid the capitation tax of $1.50 every year for three years in a row at least six months before the election. Denial of civil rights of those who had been in prison was just another attempt to disenfranchise more voters.

The Constitution of 1902 that contained all the Jim Crow provisions was never ratified by a vote of the people as all previous and all since constitutions have been. It was simply declared to be in effect by the political establishment.

These deliberate actions to keep black people from voting were so successful that by the end of 1902 there were only 21,000 of an estimated 147,000 blacks of voting age registered, and the imposition of the poll tax cut that number in half. Denial of voting rights to black people was notorious throughout the South, but no state was more successful at it than Virginia.

Many of us have worked hard in the legislature and in the courts to eliminate artificial barriers to voting. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was extremely important, but the Supreme Court gutted that law. Other techniques to limit voting by requiring specific identification, limiting hours of registration and voting, and restricting the use of absentee ballots are all modern day versions of what happened in the past.

I thank Gov. McAuliffe for his courage in eliminating one more vestige of the politics of limiting voting. Now we need to work on the others.

The Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office provides a searchable database for individuals to check to see if their rights have been restored.

  • TheRealODB

    Always enjoy your commentary on what other political leaders have accomplished during their time in office… When do you get to publishing the Ken Plum report card? #NeverPlum2017

  • Rodney Dangerfield

    The original laws were political, and this takes politics out of it? Really?

    The timing of this, and that fact that it was done by executive order instead of legislation is 100% political for Hillary and the left. Whether you are on her team or the opposite, let’s at least be intellectually honest about it. I am not saying that voter rights shouldn’t be restored, but there was a right way to go about advocating it, and this wasn’t it.

    • Dentro

      Intellectual honesty would also mean acknowledging that Republicans in the state legislature would have fought it tooth and nail, also on political grounds. I’m sure those advocating for this policy think it’s the right thing to do AND that it’ll help them in future elections, and that this was the only way it was going to get done, so they did it. Unless the courts decide they can’t do it, then it’ll get done, and it will be in their power forevermore. And that’s just the government we have.

      • Rodney Dangerfield

        Whether the Republicsns woukdnhave been for itnor against it is irrelevant. Having a debate among the elected legislators and having them vote for or against it in the light of day to then be judged by their constituents is the right way. A Governor taking executive action when he cannot be re-elected to a consecutive term is NOT.

      • Mike M

        Your logic is classic. We had to jam it, because it was the RIGHTEOUS thing do (I do so hereby declare).

  • Headless Ned Stark

    One wonders how Sir Davos Seaworth the Onion Knight will react to the resurrection of Jon Snow. He did convinced the red witch to perform the deed.

  • We are All Sleven

    “I thank Gov. McAuliffe for his courage in eliminating one more vestige of the politics of limiting voting. Now we need to work on the others.”
    So when you say “others” does this mean you want to give illegal immigrants the right to vote, or non residents of Virginia, Children?

  • shocked

    What a great way to count on the Democratic vote.

  • NoWayJose

    Nothing like getting 200k more eligible voters before the election. Vote early and vote often – The DNC

  • Mike M

    The DNC wants to make it as easy as possible for the bottom rung of society (eg, felons and the highly uneducated) to vote. Why is that? Hmmmn.

    And of course, Ken HAS to turn anything he can into a race issue. It’s what the race baiting DNC does just a surely as others would exhale.

  • rogerclegg

    If you aren’t willing to follow the law
    yourself, then you can’t demand a role in making the law for everyone else,
    which is what you do when you vote. The
    right to vote can be restored to felons, but it should be done carefully, on a
    case-by-case basis after a person has shown that he or she has really turned
    over a new leaf, not automatically on the day someone walks out of prison. After all, the unfortunate truth is that most
    people who walk out of prison will be walking back in. Read more about this issue on our website
    here [ http://www.ceousa.org/voting/voting-news/felon-voting/538-answering-the-challenges-to-felon-disenfranchisement ] and our congressional testimony here: [ http://judiciary.house.gov/_files/hearings/pdf/Clegg100316.pdf
    ].

    • susie

      These facts don’t matter to Democrats – they have another agenda.

  • susie

    Terry McAuliffe is very chummy with the Clintons – need i say more?

  • Farce 2016

    The presidential candidates on both sides are not exactly representing “we the people” and so it comes as no surprise that convicts should vote too now. My guess is most of them will vote for the greater evil, which is Hillary hands down.

  • John Higgins

    Del. Plum has written often from his perspectives as a student of history. I respect that. And that’s why I am surprised by this article’s convenient re-write of the history of disenfranchisement of felons. Far from having political roots in the early 20th century, that practice came to us from our European origins, where it was the norm for hundreds of years. (It was also standard in ancient Greece, the foundation of democratic government.) Referred to as “civil death”, the practice of denying voting and contracting rights, and confiscation of property, was society’s expression of: if you don’t want to live by the law, you shall not.

    Argue as you may over the issue, let’s keep the history honest.

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