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A New Literacy Test in Virginia?

Kent Willis,
ACLU of Virginia
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April 13, 2010

(Originally posted on Daily Kos.)

It has recently come to light that after taking office, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell quietly instituted a new process to make it even harder for individuals with nonviolent felony convictions to have their voting rights restored.

Virginia already has the most restrictive felony disfranchisement policy in the country everyone with a felony conviction to apply individually to the governor for voting rights restoration. Now, in addition to waiting three years after fully completing their sentences, paying all outstanding costs, fines and restitution and filling out a one-page application, people with past nonviolent felony convictions are being required to submit a “Details of Offense Letter,” which is described as:

A personal letter addressed to the Governor explaining the circumstances of your arrest and conviction. When and where did these offenses occur? How were you involved? Give a brief description of current employment or a “good faith” effort to obtain employment. If you have made strides in education or are involved in church activities please let us know as well. Please also include any and all service to the community since being released by the court and the reasons why you believe the restoration of your civil rights is justified.

Complicating the voting rights restoration process to the point where — according to Secretary of the Commonwealth Janet Polarek — an individual might need a lawyer just to apply is ridiculous. Not to mention that this new burden seems disturbingly close to the reinstatement of a literacy test in Virginia. For persons with a limited education, the governor’s requirement that they write an essay explaining their past and present actions and the rationale for why their rights should be restored is a nearly insurmountable obstacle.

An editorial in today’s Washington Post calls this new literacy test “disgraceful,” adding:

What’s more, they are asked to explain why they think they should get their rights back.

As we see it, the correct answer is: Because they are rights. Period. By insisting on this exercise in expository writing, Mr. McDonnell is transforming the process into a kind of literacy test — as obnoxious in its own way as the literacy tests of Jim Crow, which were intended to exclude blacks from voting. Whatever the intent, the likely effect will be to dissuade thousands of people who might otherwise apply.

Rachel Maddow also editorialized against it last night, calling the essay requirement the governor’s “next trip in the time machine,” referring to Gov. McDonnell’s omission of slavery in his Confederate History Month proclamation.

Polarek is quoted as saying that the new requirements “give[] all applicants the opportunity to have their cases heard and have their full stories told,” and described the changes as “an opportunity, not an obstacle.” She’s wrong about that. Kentucky, the only other state with a felony disfranchisement law as archaic as Virginia’s, instituted similarly onerous requirements in 2004. Rather than act as an opportunity, these new requirements were clearly an impediment: after they went into effect, the number of people receiving voting rights restoration dropped by more than half.

Over 375,000 individuals are barred from voting in Virginia due to felony convictions, of which more than half are African-American. This is no mere coincidence. The 1901 Virginia Constitutional Convention, at which poll taxes, literacy tests and felony disfranchisement were instituted or perpetuated, was intended to, as one delegate said, “eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this State in less than five years.”

The past week has showcased Gov. McDonnell’s complete disrespect toward African-American Virginians. First he proclaimed April Confederate History Month with no acknowledgement of slavery. Now with the requirement that all applicants for voting rights restoration include a personal letter to the governor explaining why the restoration of their voting rights is justified, Gov. McDonnell is imposing what amounts to a literacy test in order to vote.

The new process is a stopgap measure, put in place until permanent changes can be made to the voter restoration process. Contact Gov. McDonnell now and let him know that you will not tolerate this requirement becoming permanent and demand that he restore the streamlined application for individuals with nonviolent felony convictions.