Virginia Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe put his executive authority to bold use Friday when he overturned his state’s Civil War-era ban on voting by felons. With one move — sure to be challenged by his state’s Republicans — McAuliffe extended the right to vote to 200,000 Virginians through at least the end of his term in 2018.
Announcing his executive order, McAuliffe acknowledged the racist rationale that has underpinned state laws disenfranchising felons after their release from prison. Such laws were aimed at denying political power to African-Americans, he said. The voting ban has worked together with racially skewed criminal justice practices to deny the right to vote to 1 of 5 African-American men in Virginia today, according to the Sentencing Project, an advocacy organization.
McAuliffe’s words should prick consciences at the Minnesota Legislature. While Minnesota’s voting bar is not as far-reaching as Virginia’s was before McAuliffe’s move, it still stands to prevent 47,000 citizens from voting this year. That’s the number of felons who live in the community either on probation or on supervised release and who are barred from voting until that status ends.
While a majority of those 47,000 felons are white, their ranks include a larger proportion of people of color than the Minnesota population as a whole. That’s one of the reasons that restoration of voting rights after completion of incarceration is a top item on the United Black Legislative Agenda assembled by a new coalition of civil rights advocates this year.
Bipartisan bills to restore voting rights when prison doors swing open have been introduced at the Legislature; one has been awaiting floor action in the DFL-controlled Senate since last year. But in the GOP-controlled House, a pair of bills have been denied hearings both last year and this year.
That suggests that in Minnesota as elsewhere, the felon voting question is becoming a partisan one. That’s lamentable in a state with a proud bipartisan history of support for civil rights and participatory democracy. Minnesota should be a leader among the states in discarding voting laws that have a racist past and that are producing a racially disparate result. With four full weeks remaining in the 2016 session, the Legislature has ample time to follow the Virginia governor’s bold lead.