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December 12, 2011 Published in Letters/Opinions

End Jim Crow: Let Former Felons Vote

To the Editor:

For too long Virginians have been complacent about an enormous injustice taking place in our state, sanctioned by our own constitution. A person who commits a felony in the state of Virginia is stripped of the right to vote for the rest of his life. This right can be restored only by the governor, who must be petitioned to do so.

Although the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that "[t]he right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude," this law still stands and has left disenfranchised over 300,000 current Virginia residents, disproportionately affecting African American men.

Prompted by the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, Virginia legislators held a constitutional convention in 1901, adding this new "race-neutral" amendment to deny voting rights to all felons. In a time when former slaves were being arrested in droves, there was no confusion at the convention about the intent of the amendment. Delegate Carter Glass proclaimed that "this plan will eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this State in less than 5 years, so that in no single county…will there be the least concern felt for the complete supremacy of the white race in the affairs of government."

The War on Drugs has exponentially increased the number of people locked up in federal prisons for minor drug possession offenses. Studies have shown time and time again that those arrested for drug crimes are overwhelmingly African American and Latino, although drug use is consistent across race lines.

Part of reentering the community after incarceration is participation in the electoral process. Every state in the country, with the exception of Virginia and Kentucky, has put an end to this Jim Crow policy of the automatic exclusion of former felons from our democracy. It is time that Virginia did the same.

Robin Beyak

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