This is turning into a theme. Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia proposes some controversial culture-war initiative, someone notices it, and he backs off. First, there was his rescindment
of anti-discrimination protections for gay and lesbian state employees.
Then there was his proclamation of "Confederate History Month" that
omitted slavery. Now, he's suggested instituting more restrictions on voting rights for the formerly incarcerated -- and started to back off.
On Saturday, The Washington Post reported that McDonnell was instituting steeper re-enfranchisement requirements for formerly incarcerated people seeking to get back their voting rights. The new restrictions, which would have added a requirement that
applicants submit an essay detailing their "contributions to society"
since their release, would amount to a de facto literacy test for some of the least educated people in the state, as Chris Cassidy points out.
After taking heat from local black legislators and civil-rights
leaders, McDonnell now appears to be backing off, saying that the whole
thing was merely a "draft proposal," which doesn't explain why 200
people were sent letters saying they had to write an essay to the
governor to get their voting rights back, or why one of his spokespersons
defended the new process at the time as "an opportunity, not an
Virginia and Kentucky already have the strictest such requirements in the country, requiring the governor to personally approve the restoration of voting rights for former felons, even those who have committed nonviolent crimes. There are already around 310,000 Virginians disenfranchised by these laws, 243,000 of whom have already completed their sentences. One in six black men living in Virginia is disenfranchised by this law.
In 2002, then-Gov. Mark Warner streamlined a 16-page re-enfranchisement application to two pages for nonviolent offenders and six for those convicted of violent offenses -- a process which, again, is one of the two toughest in the country. If you've been convicted of a violent offense, your application has to include three reference letters from non-relatives. If your application is denied, you have to wait another two years to apply. According to the Brennan Center, Warner approved more re-enfranchisement applications than any Virginia governor in 20 years, a whopping total of 685, less than 1 percent of the total population disenfranchised by such laws in Virginia today.
This was too much for McDonnell apparently, so he decided to make the process even harder.
When the felony disenfranchisement laws were first passed in Virginia during the Constitutional Convention of 1902, they were part of a general package of laws meant to prevent black people from voting. As delegate and future Sen. Carter Glass said at the time, "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.”
Happy Confederate History Month.
-- A. Serwer