by Terry McAuliffe
This year has been difficult in the fight for voting rights. We lost John Lewis last month, the coronavirus pandemic has made in-person voting a challenge, and Donald Trump is actively and constantly attacking the integrity of our voting system. This comes after the Supreme Court gave states a green light to enact voter suppression laws by gutting a key provision of the now Voting Rights Act, which celebrated its 55th anniversary last week. Now more than ever, we need to be vigilant in our fight against disenfranchisement.
A Commonwealth like Virginia is the reason our country needed the Voting Rights Act. Unfortunately, we have a long and sad history of actively suppressing the voices of many thousands of men and women at the ballot box. In fact, not long after President Abraham Lincoln celebrated emancipation with former slaves gathered in Richmond, the Commonwealth of Virginia initiated a campaign of intimidation, corruption, and violence aimed at separating Black Virginians from their constitutional right to vote.
Those efforts culminated in the Virginia constitutional convention that also met in Richmond in 1901. In the same city where Lincoln spoke to those newly-freed Americans, leaders crafted a new state constitution that advanced three pillars of voter suppression: a poll tax, literacy and knowledge tests, and broader restrictions on individuals with felony convictions. A leading convention delegate, Carter Glass, expressed the intent of this new constitution loud and clear: “This plan will eliminate the darkie as a political factor.” And devastatingly, this racist scheme worked. Of the 147,000 Black Virginians of voting age in 1900, only 21,000 were on voter registration lists by the end of 1902.
It was the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that lifted many of those barriers to voting. But one of the practices perpetuating racial discrimination at the polls still stands. Virginia, as many other states across the country, continues to enforce one of the most restrictive laws in the country regarding the restoration of voting and civil rights for individuals who have been convicted of felonies but who complete their sentences and probation or parole. This is a remnant of the Jim Crow Era laws designed to keep Black voters from participating in our democracy.
In this indirect approach, the government criminalized certain behavior and disproportionately enforced the law on people of color. Even after their sentences were completed, Virginia took their voting rights away for life. What could have started out as a mistake would follow them for the rest of their lives — permanently barring them from performing their civic duty. And, as has been true throughout our history, that barrier is highest for our African-American citizens.
As I traveled around Virginia, I heard story after story from people who had been denied their basic rights for years – some of whom have never been able to vote in a single election. And I knew we had to do something about it. It was not enough to identify what was clearly wrong. We had to take action.
That is why my proudest moment as Governor of Virginia was reversing Jim Crow Era disenfranchisement and restoring more voting rights than any governor in our nation’s history. My administration restored voting rights for more than 170,000 Virginians. Along the way, Republicans sued me. They even tried to hold me in contempt of court! But we kept fighting because I could not allow for hundreds of thousands of Virginians, most of who were Black, to continue being robbed of a fundamental right after they had served their time and paid their debt to society.
And this year, we are seeing the same Republican attacks on people’s access to voting, except this time they are coming from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The President of the United States is actively undermining confidence in our process — trying to suppress the vote. Donald Trump’s constant attacks on vote by mail, in the middle of a pandemic, is an attack on our democracy. He believes he can’t win in November if turnout is high, so he wants to make it harder to vote. He’s clearly learned a thing or two from his authoritarian pals like Putin and Kim Jong-un.
But that’s not going to work this time.
We are united, energized, and ready to move forward to fulfill the spirit of the Voting Rights Act 55 years later. We are going to honor the life of the hero John Lewis by exercising the same right he was bruised and battered fighting for. We are in this together, and nothing, especially not Donald Trump, will stop us.