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Virginia just gave 200,000 people back their right to vote

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe in front of President Barack Obama.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe in front of President Barack Obama.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Friday reinstated the right to vote to more than 200,000 convicted felons, circumventing the Republican-controlled legislature with an executive order.

Sheryl Gay Stolberg reported for the New York Times:

The action will overturn a Civil War–era provision in the state's Constitution aimed, he said, at disenfranchising African-Americans.

The sweeping order, in a swing state that could play a role in deciding the November presidential election, will enable all felons who have served their prison time and finished parole [and probation] to register to vote. Most are African-Americans, a core constituency of Democrats, Mr. McAuliffe's political party.

Virginia's voting restriction, it turned out, had some pretty horrifying roots, Stolberg explained:

In researching the provisions, advisers to the governor turned up a 1906 report quoting Carter Glass, a Virginia state senator (and later, a member of Congress who was an author of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act that regulated banks) as saying they would "eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this State in less than five years, so that 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 will, however, still disenfranchise people who are serving their sentences. This is far from unique in America: With the exception of Maine and Vermont, every state has some restrictions on the voting rights of people with felony records.

Most states have voting restrictions based on criminal records

Only Maine and Vermont allow everyone to vote regardless of criminal record. Most states don't let felons who are in prison, on parole, or on probation vote. And until Virginia's change, 10 states stopped at least some felons from voting after they completed their sentences, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

As a result, the Sentencing Project estimated in 2012 that more than 5.8 million Americans weren't legally allowed to vote due to their criminal records — more than the population of either Colorado or South Carolina. Several states prohibited 6 percent to 11 percent of their electorate from voting.

Since black Americans are more likely to go to prison, this had a disproportionate impact on the African-American electorate: While the overall disenfranchisement rate didn't break 11 percent for any state, the black disenfranchisement rate topped 20 percent in Florida, Kentucky, and, notably, Virginia.

This is one of the various collateral consequences of prison, which include restrictions on employment and bans on receiving welfare benefits, accessing public housing, or qualifying for student loans for higher education.

So not only does prison deprive people of their freedoms while they're incarcerated, but the punishment can follow people for the rest of their lives.

The extended punishment can sometimes make it much more difficult for ex-inmates to get benefits that would allow them to get a job or an education, which might leave them with few options but crime to make ends meet. And since black people are more likely to be affected, collateral effects may help perpetuate crime in African-American communities in particular.

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