Community Law Center Hosts Voting Rights Seminar

Lexington, VA Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Nationally prominent voting rights advocates gathered in Lexington at the Washington and Lee School of Law to discuss reform of Virginia's felony disenfranchisement law, which takes away convicted felons' right to vote. The seminar, on Nov. 14, was hosted by the W&L Community Law Center.

According to one recent study, felony disenfranchisement affects more than 400,000 Virginia residents. Qualified ex-felons can have their right to vote restored in Virginia if the Governor approves an individually submitted application, but fewer than 7,000 applications have been granted since 1998. Since 1982, fewer than 10,000 applications have been granted. 

"Virginia's felony disenfranchisement law falls outside contemporary notions of American justice," said Howard Highland, Clinical Supervisor at the Community Law Center. "The number of disenfranchised Virginians will swell to a half million if we do not fix our broken system for restoring voting rights."

Virginia is one of only two states that permanently remove the voting rights of every resident convicted of a felony.  The vast majority of states automatically restore the right to vote upon completion of a prison sentence or probation period.  A handful of states will permanently take away voting rights from repeat offenders or persons convicted of specific felonies deemed egregious under state law. 

The seminar opened with a discussion about the Governor's authority to restore the right to vote.  This discussion was led by Kent Willis, Executive Director, American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia; Adisa Muse, Executive Director, Virginia Legislative Black Caucus; Eddie Hailes, Managing Director and General Counsel, the Advancement Project; and discussion moderator Mike Signer, Candidate for the 2009 Democratic nomination for Lieutenant Governor, Adjunct Professor at Virginia Tech, and author of Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy from Its Worst Enemies.

The second hour of the Roundtable focused on revising Virginia's felony disenfranchisement law.  Because felony disenfranchisement is entrenched in the Constitution of Virginia, discussion centered on the process to amend our state constitution. Willis and Muse were joined by three new discussion leaders: Brenda Hale, President of the NAACP-Roanoke Chapter; Brandon Patterson, Director of Resource Development, Virginia Community Action Re-Entry Services (Virginia CARES); and discussion moderator Krysta Jones, Virginia Restore the Vote Coordinator, NOVA Coalition.

The third hour of the Roundtable shifted the discussion to the Democracy Restoration Act of 2009 ("DRA"), a pending federal bill in both houses of U.S. Congress.  Erika Wood, Deputy Director of the Democracy Program at Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, led discussion about the contents of the DRA, its estimated timeline through Congress, and its importance to reform in Virginia.  Kelley Bodell, '11L, Executive Board Member of the W&L Law American Constitution Society; Paige Hodges, Planner/Grant writer, Total Action Against Poverty; and discussion moderator Stephen Spitz, State Co-Coordinator of Progressive Democrats of America in Virginia, also updated Roundtable participants about constitutional justifications and political support for the DRA.

The final hour of the Roundtable dealt with the most serious consequence of Virginia's felony disenfranchisement law:  almost 20% of African American adults in Virginia have been disenfranchised due to felony conviction.  Marcia Johnson-Blanco, Senior Counsel, Voting Rights Project of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights under Law, Brittani Nichols, '10L, a W&L law student working at the W&L Community Law Center, Anthony Segura, '09L, Visiting Clinical Instructor, and Highland, '08L, joined Wood to discuss the constitutionality of Virginia's felony disenfranchisement law and possible legal challenges.  Johnson-Blanco also outlined how American advocates should conceive of our domestic felony disenfranchisement practices within an international human rights framework. 

Highland noted, "The disparate impact of Virginia's felony disenfranchisement law on African-Americans raises complex constitutional questions at the intersection of race and criminal justice."

All Roundtable participants have been invited to contribute submissions regarding felony disenfranchisement to the W&L Law Journal of Civil Rights and Social Justice.  Anyone with expertise in felony disenfranchisement, regardless of whether they participated in the Roundtable, is also encouraged to email their submissions to crsjjournal@wlu.edu on this important topic.

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