Virginia first prohibited felons from voting shortly after emancipating its slaves. It expanded that restriction into a lifetime ban for anyone convicted of a felony in 1902. After the latter policy was passed, in a package that included poll taxes and literacy tests, one state senator wrote:
This plan will eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this State in less than five years, so that in no single county of the Commonwealth will there be the least concern felt for the complete supremacy of the white race in the affairs of government.
Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe invoked this history on Friday, when he announced an executive order restoring voting rights to all ex-felons in the state who have served their prison time and finished parole or probation.
“I have long struggled with the question of whether Virginia can fully address Lincoln’s call for a government by the people, of the people, and for the people, when we cut out so many people from full citizenship,” McAuliffe told reporters from the steps of the state capitol. “This is the essence of democracy. Any effort to erode it dilutes it for all of us. So I believe it is time to cast off Virginia’s troubled history and restore the rights of these men and women.”
The order will enfranchise more than 200,000 Virginians, the vast majority of them people of color.
Virginia had been one of four states — including Kentucky, Florida, and Iowa — with lifetime voting bans for all ex-felons. In 38 other states, ex-felons automatically recover voting rights upon the completion of their sentences. In Maine and Vermont, felons never lose the franchise, even while in prison.
Virginia’s Republican Party denounced McAuliffe’s order as “political opportunism” and “a transparent effort to win votes.” The charge isn’t wholly unreasonable. The newly enfranchised voters will be disproportionately African-American, and African-Americans vote disproportionately for Democrats. According to the Upshot’s back-of-the-envelope math, the order could increase the Democratic share of Virginia’s vote by a half-point this November.
On the other hand, the ban on ex-felon voting was itself enacted for political reasons. Perhaps, McAuliffe’s motives are impure. (He is a longtime ally of Hillary Clinton). But if the repeal of voting restrictions — that were explicitly designed to defend white supremacy — is inopportune for your party, well, you deserve to suffer that disadvantage.