Governor Terry McAuliffe.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

A Victory for Democracy in Virginia

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Good news for democracy in the United States: Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe is restoring voting rights to some 200,000 citizens who were convicted of felonies, served their time and completed parole.

While this move is likely to help Democrats (ex-felons in Virginia are disproportionately African-Americans, and black voters overwhelmingly favor Democrats), it’s wrong to cast it as a partisan move. Virginia did not represent the status quo nationally. It has been one of only 12 states where conviction on a felony strips you of voting rights for a lifetime. 

It would have been partisan not to restore the right. The default should be that every citizen in a democracy has the right to vote unless particularly strong reasons argue otherwise. “Because it would help one party” is not a strong reason.   I oppose removing voting rights even for felons currently serving their sentences. Currently, only Vermont and Maine allow these prisoners to vote. And voting should be easy.

Even though the U.S. has a high number of incarcerated people, the idea that this group would constitute a voting bloc with impressive political power is ridiculous. 

The only reason other than partisanship for not considering felons full citizens is symbolic: that citizenship, and therefore the vote, is reserved only for the best of us, and held only on good behavior. But that argument is hard to accept when it comes to those who have done their time and returned to society. The stronger case is that in a democracy, for better or worse, we are all citizens. 

So good for Terry McAuliffe for taking this step, whatever his motives.

  1. That's why I support the vote for students of high school age, and perhaps even middle school age. I suspect this would help Republicans. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

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