Virginia

Ed Gillespie's Scaremongering On Felon Voting Rights Is a Sloppy Return to Crime Hysteria

In the final days of the Virginia governor's race, the Republican campaign lashes out with Trumpian crime rhetoric.

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Anyone within range of a Virginia media market has been inundated with ads lately for the state's gubernatorial election, pitting Republican Ed Gillespie against the Democrat, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam.

As the race draws to a close, Gillespie unleashed a series of Trumpian attack ads against Northam. One of those ads hits Northam for his role last year in Gov. Terry McAuliffe's ambitious, unprecedented action to restore voting rights to Virginia felons:

Last year, Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam instituted the automatic restoration of rights for violent felons and sex offenders, making it easier for them to obtain firearms and allowing them to serve on juries. One of these felons, John Bowen, had his rights restored two months after being found with one of the largest child-pornography collections in Virginia's history. Forty-three prosecutors—Republicans, Democrats, and Independents—opposed Ralph Northam's reckless policy. Now, Virginia law enforcement has endorsed Ed Gillespie for governor.

Virginia is one of only four states where a felony conviction bars one from voting for life. Last year, McAuliffe announced with great fanfare that he was issuing an order to automatically restore the voting rights or more than 200,000 Virginians who had completed their prison sentences, including violent felons. The order also allowed ex-offenders to petition a judge for the restoration of their Second Amendment rights.

Gillespie's ad is an unsubtle nod to the tough-on-crime campaign spots that got Republicans and Democrats alike elected to office in the 1980s and 1990s. The most infamous of these was the George H.W. Bush campaign's 1988 Willie Horton ad.

The Gillespie campaign has also released ads trumpeting the dangers of MS-13, a Latin street gang that has been the bête noire of the Trump administration, and Gillespie's opposition to removing Confederate monuments. The Washington Post editorial board declared Gillespie's last-minute populist turn "a poisonous strategy for the nation and for Virginia."

And like those old crime ads, the Gillespie campaign plays fast and loose with the facts in the case of John Bowen. Bowen had been arrested in December—but not yet convicted—for child pornography when his voting rights were restored. Bowen had voting rights for a total of 41 days.

McAuliffe's administration made a mess of the restoration order, leaving it open to attacks like those on the Bowen case. The order accidentally restored voting rights to some felons who were still in prison, as well as 132 sex offenders held in civil commitment—a process where a judge can continue to indefinitely detain sex criminals in a state treatment facility after the completion of their prison sentence, if their mental illness or disorder is deemed likely they will offend again.

Furious Republicans sued to block the order, and the state supreme court ruled that McAuliffe didn't have the authority to grant such an en masse restoration without signing off on each individual case. Since then, he has signed off on roughly 168,000 offenders.

One major twist in this story is Gillespie's campaign website saying, overall, he supports restoring voting rights for felons. Like many Republicans these days, Gillespie's views on criminal justice are moderate and not unlike mainstream Democrats like Northam.

Gillespie supports keeping questions about prior felonies off of state government job applications. He'd like to end the suspension of drivers' licenses for unpaid court fines, something Reason reported last year resulted in hundreds of thousands of Virginia residents losing their licenses every year, even if they had no means to pay the fines.

After putting the fear of enfranchised sex offenders in the heart of the audience (they might vote and serve on juries!), the second half of Gillespie's TV spot tries to return to moderate support for the policy:

Virginians who have paid their debt to society and are living an honest life should have their rights restored. But Ralph Northam's policy of automatic restoration of rights for unrepentant, unreformed, violent criminals is wrong. As governor, I'll be both compassionate and protecting of Virginia families. I'm Ed Gillespie, candidate for governor, and I sponsored this ad.

The feel-good half of the ad isn't what Gillespie's campaign would like voters to remember. The real message—that Northam wants to make sex offenders full and free members of society after their release—is loud and clear.

While Republican governors and lawmakers are coming around to criminal justice reform, the Trump administration has shown scaremongering still works on a significant number of voters. Gillespie is trying to have it both ways. Whether he succeeds will be an interesting test of the durability of Trumpian rhetoric in the GOP.

Either way, it comes at the cost of millions of ex-offenders in this country continuing to struggle to lead productive, meaningful lives because of the stigma of their encounter with the criminal justice system.

Among the most ambitious and talented, like Shon Hopwood, success is rare and hard-fought. While serving time in federal prison for bank robbery, Hopwood became arguably the most successful jailhouse lawyer of all time, as shown in a recent 60 Minutes profile. He had not one, but two successful petitions to the Supreme Court, something most professional appellate attorneys only dream of. But after his release, he was warned that, even if he got accepted to and graduated from law school, it was highly unlikely because of his felony record any state bar association would admit him.

Hopwood beat the odds and is now a licensed attorney and Georgetown law professor. For most other ex-offenders, though, even the most modest dreams of holding down a job are stymied by legal roadblocks and the fear of unredeemable criminality.

Whether he believes in it or not, Gillespie hopes invoking that fear will put him in office.

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41 responses to “Ed Gillespie's Scaremongering On Felon Voting Rights Is a Sloppy Return to Crime Hysteria

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  1. The utility of the sex offender registry is boundless.

  2. I always heard that the right to vote was necessary to balance out the responsibility of taking government in the ass.

    Oh, well. Whatevs.

  3. Democrat Ralph Northam is a racist piece of garbage.

    Northam refused to shake hands with his Black opponent, EW Jackson during the Lt. Governor debate in 2013.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QqO4u0yrkjA

    Now in 2017, he refuses to list his Black running mate for Lt. Governor, Justin Fairfax, on political fliers.

    1. He’s a Democrat so, by default, he is incapable of racism.

  4. A Democratic governor tried an end-run around the state Constitution in order to boost Democratic voting strength.

    A good deal of the energy of the felon-voting crusade comes from Democrats seeking extra votes.

    At the same time, as the post notes, most states give you your voting rights back after you’ve served your sentence (including probation and parole) or after a waiting period.

    Virginia is not one of these states. Supposedly, felons are off the voting rolls until the governor decides, *in their particular situation,* that they should get the vote back.

    The Democrats think individualized consideration is for the unambitious and the over-scrupulous. They want felons to troop to the ballot box and cast their vote for Ds.

    Even if convicted felons become eligible to vote upon completion of sentence, there’s no guarantee they *will* vote – something the Dems want to change with their get out the vote campaigns.

    1. Sorry the obviously correct policy results in more votes for Democrats. Perhaps Republicans should stop being ideological lunatics and try appealing to human constituents for a change.

      1. You are implying that the Republicans have an ideology.

      2. Sorry the obviously correct policy results in more votes for Democrats. Perhaps Republicans should stop being ideological lunatics and try appealing to human constituents for a change.

        So, the Democrats are proud to be the party of felons. Good to hear.

      3. The obviously correct policy of border control and deportation of illegal immigrants will most likely result in fewer votes for Democrats. Perhaps Democrats should stop trying to destroy America and appeal to US citizens for a change.

  5. “Gillespie supports keeping questions about prior felonies off of state government job applications. He’d like to end the suspension of drivers’ licenses for unpaid court fines,”

    One very small silver lining, at least Gillespie and the Virginia Republican Party are at the point of supporting/paying lip service to some Criminal Justice Reform.

  6. Good God! We can’t let criminals vote, because if criminals can vote, then they will assault people with spoiled ballots, or they will forge their own names and elect themselves governor, or something awful.

    Why, again, is it important for criminals not to vote?

    1. Most states disenfranchise felons during their sentence, and in some cases, for a few years afterward.

      Virginia is an outlier. Or *was* an outlier, now that the Dems have done their massive re-enfranchisement.

      But while a convicted felon is actually behind bars, or on probation or parole, then there’s a case for disenfranchisement, because their civic status has been for a time suspended and they are paying off their “debt to society.”

      Of course, some felonies shouldn’t be felonies at all, but as for rapists, burglars, and killers and the like – I say keep them off the voting rolls so long as they’re still in prison/probation/parole.

      If *non*-felon voters are disposed to trample on the rights of others, how much more would voters who are still serving sentences for rights-violating crimes?

      1. What about people who were convicted of rape, murder, theft, etc. but are actually innocent? Maybe they want to vote for candidates who will improve the legal system. Even if someone is a genuine murderer, rapist, thief, or something like that, there is no real reason to not let them vote.

    2. In 1931 the Chicago Tribune made a big stink over the large number of “offenders” being branded “felons” for things like carrying a sixpack of light beer across the street. Today a couple of ounces of marijuana roots stuck in the ground in your yard can brand you a felon for life, confiscate your house (but force you to pay the mortgage) and grab your gun. This comes of voting for looters even though there is a clear libertarian alternative. Folks in many countries would give anything for the chance to vote libertarian.

  7. Scaremongering is about the only thing the modern Republican Party does well.

    Scare people into believing Obama was gonna grab their guns.
    Scare people into believing Hillary was going to institute revolutionary socialism.
    Scare people into believing Northam is going to set MS13 free to kill your children.

    It is shameful.

    1. Scare people into believing Northam is going to set MS13 free to kill your children.

      Here in deep blue Alexandria, MS13 left a severed head at a playground. If given a choice between Northam’s promises of free birth control and no confederate statues, or their little one not having to find a body part in the sandbox, I know which one most moms around here would choose, so smart if distasteful move on Gillespie’s part.

      1. So? Lorena Bobbitt left a severed head… nevermind.

    2. Scaremongering is about the only thing the modern Republican Party does well.

      Is your point that the Democratic party, or for that matter the Libertarian party, any other party, or indeed the writers of reason, do not do as good a job at their own nonstop scaremongering over every issue?

  8. Whereas Northum only wants to take away everyone’s right to keep their money and to keep and bear arms.

    1. That’s “libertarian-Democrat Ed Northum” ’round these parts, pal.

      1. “libertarian-Democrat Ralph Northum”

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  10. For what it’s worth, in Puerto Rico, not only ex cons, but people in prison can all vote. And for the record, most of them vote for the Statehood party.

  11. Nobody should ever lose the right to vote. It’s Alice in Wonderland fucking absurd that the people most directly affected by government policy, say prisoners, have the least amount of say in the makeup of the system. I can think of a few groups of people who I’d prefer not vote. Air-headed fucking soccer moms do not know more about how government should run than convicts. There simply is no rational justification for denying the franchise to convicts, let alone ex-convicts.

    1. Nobody should ever lose the right to vote. It’s Alice in Wonderland fucking absurd that the people most directly affected by government policy, say prisoners, have the least amount of say in the makeup of the system. I can think of a few groups of people who I’d prefer not vote. Air-headed fucking soccer moms do not know more about how government should run than convicts. There simply is no rational justification for denying the franchise to convicts, let alone ex-convicts.

      Are there any rights they should forfeit? If so, which ones and why?

    2. Tony it’s like the warden told you. To go on conjugal visits you need to be invited.

  12. In the final days of the Virginia governor’s race, the Republican campaign lashes out with Trumpian crime rhetoric.

    Every article at Reason comes with a packet of gratuitous dose of Trump hating.

    1. No shit.

      You know, maybe being the Lt. Gov for a man who happily ignored his actual limits to power and had no issues with it should be a bit of a badge of shame.

    2. Well he is a con man, a bullshitter and an idiot so I don’t think any shot at him could be considered gratuitous

  13. As the race draws to a close, Gillespie unleashed a series of Trumpian attack ads against Northam.

    Damn. Before Trump, political attack ads never occurred. He created it out of whole cloth. LBJ’s “Daisy” ad was an ad about little girls counting and how important it was that little girls could count.

    You sound like idiots with this “Trumpian attack ads” bullshit.

  14. ” automatically restore the voting rights…..allowed ex-offenders to petition a judge for the restoration of their Second Amendment rights.”

    They trust them with a vote, but don’t necessarily trust them with a firearm. Uh-huh.

    If I don’t trust you with a firearm, I sure as Hell don’t trust you with a vote.

    1. Ditto. I ask Progs what rights should be forfeited permanently with incarceration. I never get well reasoned answers

  15. One of these days a libertarian is going to come along and reconcile the idea that Americans are adults that should be able to make their own choices with the idea that Americans are little children constantly being tricked by republican scare tactics.

    Then the next day for the first time a libertarian will have sex. Until then libertarians will keep shitting their pants at the threat of scare tactics.

  16. The Virginia governor’s race is nothing more than a dog and pony show anyway -thankfully for us, they only get a single term-then, maybe run for senate. Whoever wins is irrelevant unless somehow the dems win the assembly too, which is a really scary thought, but pretty unlikely this year.

  17. “Gillespie supports keeping questions about prior felonies off of state government job applications.”

    And why in the hell do we think this is a good thing?

    1. I agree, this doesn’t strike me as an automatic good thing. All things being equal, I’d rather hire a non-felon than a felon.

      1. How long after a person serves his sentence and is released should they continue to be unable to get any job? Maybe it would be better for the public in general if ex cons could get jobs. That might reduce recidivism.

        1. Seems like a rather extreme dichotomy. What if TW was free to not hire them and you were free to hire them, and nobody was manipulated or kept in the dark?

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