Voting Rights Restored To Convicted Felons In Virginia
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Politics and Activism

Voting Rights Restored To Convicted Felons In Virginia

Why Governor McAuliffe made the right choice regardless of his motives.

Voting Rights Restored To Convicted Felons In Virginia

With an executive order, Governor Terry McAuliffe restored voting rights to nearly a quarter million convicted felons in Virginia this month, bypassing the standard process of creating state legislature. McAuliffe's move was sure to make headlines as it did, but it also brought to light was a greater issue: should those who have served their crimes' sentences be allowed to reenter society as equal participants?

This piece of legislature allows former criminals who have successfully undertaken their prison and probation times to vote in all levels of political elections, as well as to serve on juries and run for office. Both those in support of and against the new law seem rational in their judgments when the other view is not taken into consideration, but viewing them at the same time highlights how sticky this realm of the law actually is.

There is currently a lot of anxiety within American society surrounding the direction the nation is taking both politically and morally, making it a particularly difficult time to swallow a tough pill. Individuals who have been found guilty of crimes including rape and murder are now able to help decide the leaders of nation, at least in Virginia. One can only imagine how Trump will skew this fact in his future speeches, but even those who do not hold his often irrational biases may feel ambiguous about the motion nonetheless. If these felons did not play by the rules in the first play, after all, why should they get to help create new rules in the future?

Moreover, though the governor cited discrimination as a reason to alter the law, many note that the state's restrictions on restoring voting rights to felons has been in place since 1830, before the Civil War was even fought to free enslaved individuals. Additionally, many critics argue that this move was strategically aimed to help Hilary Clinton in her run for the White House; of note, the McAuliffe family has raised millions of dollars to aid her campaign. Many of those whose rights will be restored fall into demographics that largely support Clinton. Adding to this reasoning is the fact that though convicted felons are regaining their voting rights in Virginia, they still are banned from claiming rights to the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms. Hans Von Spakovsky, manager of Civil Justice Reform Initiative, shares this skepticism over the governor's motives: "The governor is saying he now trusts the judgement of these individuals to vote in a ballot...but he doesn't trust them outside in the community to exercise their Second Amendment rights...There's a bit of a hypocrisy."

The restoration of voting rights, but not of the right to bear arms may make sense to many people given the fact that in many cases the dangerous use of firearms was part of the cause of a criminal's conviction. This said, if the person is allowed to reenter the world, work with the rest of society and now participate in the government, shouldn't this person be allowed to fully be an American citizen once again, with all of the rights that come with it?

Regardless of how one stands on this last issue, those in support of Governor McAuliffe's decision to restore voting rights to convicted felons have many defenses at the ready to support his judgement. Perry Hopkins, an ex-felon convicted for non-violent drug charges and now a worker for Maryland Communities United, is one of these people and puts a human face to the people who have been denied the rights of political involvement: "I committed a criminal offense, I was sentenced in a criminal court, but nobody told me it was a lifelong civil sentence." Part of a segment focused on this new executive order on "The Diane Rehm Show," Perry himself is proof that many individuals who are regaining their voting rights are on the whole good people who never harmed another being.

Consider this: most people are faced daily with the choice to make a good or bad decision. Depending on a person's environment, age and many other external circumstances, these choices might be between ordering onion rings or a side salad at a restaurant, or they might be whether or not to sell drugs in order to provide for oneself and family. The choice to get involved in illegal drugs is not to be condoned, but the fact remains that a lot of times these bad decisions come when a person is a young adult without a fully developed brain or a complete sense of consequences. Going beyond drugs, by no means are rape and murder ever justified, but it is time to understand that psychological development likely plays a role in many of these crimes. There are good people who commit atrocious crimes and they deserve to pay the consequences, but once they have, should they not be allowed to have a second chance?

If the justice system is competent, those who commit these crimes after having actually thought out the morality and consequences that surround them should not be receiving sentences that release them into society. As for those who made really bad decisions, but who hold themselves accountable and recognize the changes that they need to make, restoring voting rights might actually strengthen their potential success in the future. To Hopkins, disenfranchisement made him feel alien in his own country: "I felt less than [an American citizen]. Much less than, second class, not second, probably third or fourth. I felt depressed. The returning of the voting rights, I'm going to tell you what, I felt vindicated." Hopkins and many with similar pasts still have hurdles facing them when they look for jobs or want bank loans, but now they are that much closer to being equalized with the average American. The pride Hopkins felt can't but help keep him on straight path in life.

The question of whether or not the restoration of voting rights to convicted felons is justified, let alone good, is one with multiple layers of caveats and reasoning. State laws prove this fact as Vermont and Maine allow even those still in prison to vote, while in 12 other states many convicted felons never regain their rights even after a waiting period. Though in Virginia, there is an added dynamic in terms of the legality of Governor McAuliffe's executive order, there is no clear overarching answer to the issue at hand. What is clear, however, is that criminals come in all forms and from all different backgrounds, and, more importantly, after time is served, these individuals handle their experiences in a plethora of ways. It is important to personalize those affected by these laws, rather than to just look at their offenses on an otherwise blank piece of paper. We all make bad choices, some worse than others, but if one takes responsibility and makes changes, should that individual be denied the basic rights upheld by our country?

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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