Gov. Tim Kaine's office uses non-felony driving offenses as primary criteria for denying restored voting rights to convicted felons. It's a standard that critics say is at best wrong, at worst potentially racist.
Frank Anderson, whose restoration petition was denied last year in September, says he was unaware of the driving requirement until he received an e-mail from Bernie Henderson, senior deputy Secretary of the Commonwealth, on Dec. 16. In the e-mail, Henderson cites Anderson's “moving violations, such as speeding” as cause for denying his petition.
“The point is they're traffic tickets, they're not misdemeanors,” says Anderson, who lives in Fairfax County. “And they're all paid off. The [voter restoration] application just says you have to have no misdemeanors in the past three years. This is a secret policy of the governor's office.”
It's a secret policy that, critics maintain, has sinister overtones. Considering that a higher percentage of Virginia convicts are black -- not to mention a variety of national studies that show blacks are often targeted for traffic enforcement -- the governor's criteria may create an unintended racial bias in the rights restoration process.
“The entire felon disenfranchisement issue is very connected to race,” says Kent Willis, executive director of Virginia's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Willis cites as examples Virginia's 1901 constitutional convention that instituted the poll tax and literacy tests for voters, in addition to the disenfranchisement of felons. The three “are all related to Jim Crow,” Willis says. It still affects African Americans significantly more than anyone else. Of the 300,000 people in Virginia who are disenfranchised, Willis says, roughly 50 percent are African American.
“This is part of the Jim Crow era and it hasn't been removed,” says Anderson, who is white. He points a finger at Kaine, a noted civil rights attorney, for failing to stand up for the cause under political pressure. “Which side of history do you want to be on? Kentucky, or the rest of the United States?” Anderson posits.
Kentucky and Virginia are the only states that do not have an automatic procedure for voter rights restoration for felons.
Kaine's office paints Anderson, who was convicted of burglary in 1998, as a habitual offender.
“The governor's position is that if you have a clean record for three years, you will have your rights restored,” says Kaine's spokesman Gordon Hickey. “[Anderson] does not. It's pretty simple.”
But it's not that simple, says Willis, whose group has been actively working to pressure Kaine during the governor's final months in office to act to restore all felons' voting rights.
“The sad truth is that the governor holds complete control over who gets their rights restored,” he says, noting that there is no process in state law that dictates criteria for voting rights restoration. “It's completely arbitrary and that's the process we're trying to change.”
Kaine has voiced his own support for a change in the state's process for re-enfranchising felons, but has resisted calls to do so via an executive order.
Anderson's story was first reported by political blog NotLarrySabato.com. The blog's founder, Ben Tribbett, goes so far as to label the story a “scandal.”
“It's a moral dilemma that I think the governor has failed at,” he says, noting that the Democratic National Committee maintains a standing committee “that looks into things like this the states do.” Tribbett envisions a scenario where the DNC could have cause to investigate its own chairman's practices.