Dianis & Williams-Cullins: Give back Virginia citizens’ right to vote

Mercedies Harris is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who serves as the ordained minister of Friendship Church in Staunton. A husband and the caretaker for his special-needs stepson, he's a college student pursuing a bachelor's degree in psychology, and he volunteers as a substance abuse counselor. He is a model citizen, giving back to his community and caring for his family. Harris is also one of the more than 451,000 Virginians who have been permanently stripped of their right to vote because of a past felony conviction.

Convicted on two felony counts of drug distribution in 1989, Harris was released from prison in 2003 and long ago turned his life around. But despite having paid his debt to society for those past offenses, he is still barred from voting under an outdated Virginia law that disenfranchises citizens with felony convictions — forever.

Voting is the most fundamental right of American citizenship, but it is overtly denied to millions as a matter of course. A recent Sentencing Project study found that, in the 11 states that ban people from voting after they have completed their sentences, there are more than 2.6 million disenfranchised people. In Virginia, Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee, for example, felon disenfranchisement affects an astounding 7 percent of the adult population. They're more strongly represented in areas with harsher voting prohibitions, such as Virginia — one of only four states in the country that goes to the extreme measure of permanently taking away the vote from individuals with felony convictions.

While, in Virginia, it is possible for individuals to have their voting rights restored through individual petitions approved by the governor, the application process is lengthy, burdensome and often marred by administrative error. If an application for rights restoration is rejected, the applicant must wait one year before trying again. But even if the governor approved one application an hour for 24 hours, 365 days a year, it would still take 51 years to restore everyone's rights. By contrast, in most other states the right to vote is automatically restored after a sentence is served.

By: Judith Browne Dianis & Vicki Williams-Cullins

The question remains — why does Virginia deny citizens who have served their time from exercising our nation's most foundational right? We don't require them to forfeit the right to practice their religion of choice, own property or marry; yet somehow participating in self-government after paying their debt is expressly withheld. Freedom and equality are rooted in our Declaration of Independence, but we don't apply these foundational values to everyone. Public opinion research shows that a majority of Americans see little sense in this, with 80 percent agreeing that voting rights should be restored to the 2.6 million people who are disenfranchised due to past felonies.

The 20 percent of Americans who see it differently may argue that withholding the right to vote from individuals convicted of a felony weeds out "criminals" from the electorate. But the truth is that most convicted felons have not committed violent crimes, such as rape or murder, and three out of every five felony convictions does not even lead to jail time. The imposition of lifetime bans from the voting booth simply serves no purpose beyond creating a caste system in which ex-offenders are forever relegated to second-class citizenship.

As we get closer to November's presidential election, in which the two candidates have vastly different visions for the future of our country, it is shameful that hundreds of thousands of Virginia citizens will be silenced. The outcome of the race will have major implications for everything from the economy to health care to education — issues that affect ex-offenders as much as anyone else — and they ought to be allowed to participate.

There is hope, however, for turning around this injustice. Gov. Bob McDonnell, through executive order, has the authority to automatically restore voting rights to Virginians who have completed their sentences. We urge the commonwealth, and all Virginia citizens, to take a stand for this solution that not only reflects common sense, but truly upholds our nation's standing as the world's greatest democracy.

Mercedies Harris, for one, knows all too well the present alternative of remaining socially and politically isolated years after re-entering society. He works, has a family and pays taxes — but still doesn't have a voice in our democracy. In a letter sent to McDonnell in August, petitioning for the second time to have his civil rights restored, he pleaded: "I would ask that I be forgiven, and restored my rights, and be whole once again."

Judith Browne Dianis, one of the nation's leading voting rights litigators and co-director of Advancement Project, a next generation civil rights organization focused on issues of democracy and race, read her full bio here. Vickie Williams-Cullins is the owner of Opn-Door Communications, a private Virginia employee relation and alternative dispute resolution firm, and may be contacted at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)