The Debate Over Felon Voting Rights Has a Long History in Virginia

Mar 9, 2017

Credit MBandman / Creative Commons

Lawmakers in Virginia remain divided over how former felons should get the right to vote back. It’s a debate that has deep roots in Virginia history, not all of it pleasant. 

When James McGuffin, who was black, showed up at the Staunton courthouse to vote in 1884, he believed he had just as much a right to be there as everyone else. But a white man intervened and accused McGuffin of theft. A judge said McGuffin could vote, but then he was arrested for casting an illegal vote.

“Someone could accuse you quite easily of being convicted of one of these crimes. That accusation would be difficult to disprove, and you could be denied the vote base on that.”

Pippa Holloway is a history professor at Middle Tennessee State University. She says Virginia was at the vanguard of southern states using a variety of tricks to keep blacks from voting, like accusations of crime.

“It’s interesting to me that Virginia still remains in the spotlight now in 2017 because Virginia in 1876 was the boldest southern state in terms of really amending their constitution, not doing this in a backhanded way but doing it in a way that had the force of a constitutional measure.”

In 1876, Virginia voters approved a constitutional amendment that made petty larceny a trigger for losing the right to vote. That stayed in effect until the 1980s. And now, lawmakers are once again considering changing the constitution, a debate that got heated during the General Assembly session this year. Republican state Senator David Suetterlein of Roanoke argued the system of taking away someone’s right to vote has little to do with race, because it existed long before blacks even had the right to vote.

“We know what was happening in 1830, and they were not allowing African Americans to vote period regardless of their felony status. This was something that the commonwealth adopted in 1830 to prevent folks who committed a felony of any sort from voting.”

But historian Pippa Holloway says that logic doesn't recognize what happened later.

“That argument is absolutely wrong. Across the south including Virginia in the 1870s, almost every southern state modified their laws lowering the standard for disfranchisement to include much more common crimes.”

For instance, in Mississippi in 1876, lawmakers made it a felony to steal pigs, a crime that at the time was associated with African-Americans. They charged more African-Americans with stealing pigs, which allowed them to take all those blacks off the voting rolls for felony disenfranchisement. Virginia took the whole thing a step further and took away the vote for petty larceny, things like stealing pigs or chickens. Blacks in Virginia didn’t even need to commit a felony to have their right to vote taken away. Edward Ayers at the University of Richmond says it was an implicit way of accomplishing a goal they were explicitly forbidden from achieving.

“The 15th Amendment explicitly prohibits us from using race as the rationale for depriving someone of the right to vote. So therefore we have to come up with an elaborate array of explanations that are not race based to deprive people of the right to vote.”

Fortunately for those trying to get to the truth today, the people involved didn’t hide their motives.  

“They very explicitly said we are looking for ways to limit the black vote. So the historical record is very clear about this. It’s not something we have to infer.”

Ultimately, Ayers says the history of using criminal charges to take away the right to vote speaks to Virginia’s current debate about how former felons should get their rights back.

“I think that people would like to just set aside the historical record as being irrelevant in the current day. But the historical record actually determines why we are in the current day and the situation where we are.”

And Democratic state Senator Dave Marsden of Fairfax County says the distant past is certainly relevant to the modern debate.

“One out of five African Americans in the commonwealth of Virginia is disenfranchised from the vote. One in five. And the only way we can get rid of this stain in our past where we have purposely targeted African Americans to keep them from voting, the only way we can do that is to reform our Constitution.”

Lawmakers considered a number of different changes to the constitution that would make it easier — or harder — for former felons to vote -- but none of them survived. So the debate about who gets to vote and when, doesn't look likely to stop anytime soon.