Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) felt compelled to restore the voting rights of more than 206,000 former felons due to the state’s disenfranchisement policies, which he described as “rooted in a tragic history of voter suppression and marginalization of minorities.” However, his July 22 order was almost immediately overturned by the state’s Supreme Court. With the victory, state lawmakers and some of Virginia’s most powerful leaders, are calling for McAuliffe’s resignation.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe
“Restoring the rights of Virginians who have served their time and live, work, and pay taxes in our communities is one of the pressing civil rights issues of our day,” McAuliffe said at the Richmond signing of the resolution. “I have met these men and women and know how sincerely they want to contribute to our society as full citizens again.”
Kenny Anthony Mills, convicted in 1982 of armed robbery and felonious assault, was among the initial 200,000 to have his rights restored, and subsequently taken away a second time. Mills told the AFRO that he was at first excited and now dismayed by the turn of events that will force him to seek individual restoration of his rights.
“It’s all politics to the White people manipulating the markers, but this is my life,” Mills said. “I served 33 years in prison for crimes I committed as a kid – I was 19. My citizenship in this country does not end because I broke the law. McAuliffe tried to strike an unfair law so that its citizens can get back to being lawful and abiding, but he’s being treated like he committed treason.”
At issue for McAuliffe’s opponents was the broad stroke of restoration without examining individual cases. Many said they believed that in addition to excluding those who had once been violent offenders, the restoration of voting rights should not be extended to individuals who committed particularly heinous crimes. “Once a savage, always a savage,” Ashburn resident Marlena Graham told the AFRO. “Prisons do not rehabilitate as they ought to and some of these people have committed crimes that continue to scar their victims 20, 30, or 40 years later. They should never be allowed to function in society without being ostracized.”
But when pressed on the fact that many of the ex-offenders seeking restoration of their rights had committed felonies that were drug-related, drug-induced, or perpetrated by then-teens – crimes for which the overwhelming new majority of arrested are White and poor – Graham took pause.
“We can’t just lock up everyone… there should be some level of treatment so that people don’t lose their dignity and can still function in society . . . Well, I guess citizenship and some crimes should be reconsidered felonies because there are drugs involved or maybe we just need to re-examine the entire system,” she said.
An overhaul of the entire system works for Mills, who said the gang he “ran with” had as many White members as Blacks and five guys were arrested along with him in 1982. Of them, the three White guys served less than a decade, and he and the other Black accomplice received 30-years sentences. “Making things right afterwards is a major feat, but we need to address the bias and racism that had me – the getaway driver – locked up long after the shooters were home getting married and making babies,” Mills told the AFRO. “The least I can get is my right to vote back.”
Virginia has been a swing state in the last two presidential elections. But with polls suggesting Clinton currently has a solid lead in the state over GOP nominee Donald Trump, her campaign has said it won’t run local ads there, allowing it to focus resources on states that appear closer.
Republicans said McAuliffe was trying to help Clinton, a close friend and political ally, by pumping up the voting rolls with Black voters. Exit polls show Blacks tend to vote Democratic. Republican leaders and residents like Graham, remain upset that the order covered violent felons. Both say that each former felon’s case needed to be addressed individually by the governor.
Virginia is one of several states that has seen efforts to loosen rules on voting by former felons, which disenfranchise nearly 6 million Americans, who are disproportionately Black. Maryland this year restored voting rights to all felons no longer in prison.