In Granting Ex-Felons Right to Vote, McAuliffe Shows Why Elections Matter

Terry McAuliffe is no friend of the netroots progressive movement. For a long time he has represented to many on the left a centrist and business-friendly version of the party that they would prefer to leave behind in favor of a more ideological position.

That said, McAuliffe’s decision to restore voting rights to over 200,000 convicted felons who have served their time and finished parole proves once again that regardless of intra-party fights over progressive or neoliberal ideas, it matters deeply who gets into power between Democrats and Republicans.

The Virginia decision is particularly impactful because of the long, racist history of the rule barring felons:

The action effectively overturns a Civil War-era provision in the state’s Constitution aimed, he said, at disenfranchising African-Americans…

Amid intensifying national attention over harsh sentencing policies that have disproportionately affected African-Americans, governors and legislatures around the nation have been debating — and often fighting over — moves to restore voting rights for convicted felons. Virginia imposes especially harsh restrictions, barring felons from voting for life.

The far-right swerve of the Republican Party in in recent decades means that even the most conservative Democrat is usually far superior to even the most liberal Republican at anything above the hyperlocal level. It is important for the Democratic Party to nominate candidates who support policies that improve lives, but it’s also important for even the most jaded voters to remember that no matter how frustrated they may become with the party’s standardbearers, it still matters greatly who holds office.

That said, it’s also important to remember that such executive actions by governors have limited effect until a unified liberal Congress can step in to require states to reverse discriminatory practices by national fiat–otherwise the executive actions of a Democratic governor can be simply overturned by a conservative:

In Kentucky, Gov. Matt Bevin, a newly elected Republican, recently overturned an order enacted by his Democratic predecessor that was similar to the one Mr. McAuliffe signed Friday.

Matt Bevin, of course, was elected in Kentucky in part because of low voter turnout among Democrats. That had direct consequences for thousands of dispossessed and disenfranchised people.

Elections have serious consequences, and voters should remember that–even if they may not be entirely happy with their choices.

P.S. It’s worth noting for the record that Washington Monthly was among the first publications to write seriously about the injustice of denying the vote to convicts who had served their sentence, and did so over 15 years ago

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.